First Thoughts: Sofia Khan is NOT Obliged

SOPHIA KHAN has a lot in common with Bridget Jones; Helen Fielding’s creation from 1996.

 Like Bridget, she lives in London, works in publishing, and makes frequent embarrassing mistakes. She has a coterie of close girlfriends.

Like Bridget, Sophia wants to get married. And the pressure to do so, from her parents, and the community in general is strong. After all, she’s 30 — over the hill! Sophia, like Bridget, is attractive, but is consumed with her weight. She’s funny; quirky; sweet and emotionally a bit of a mess.

There is, though, one major difference between the characters. Whilst Bridget’s life revolved around drink and sex, Sophia indulges in neither. And that’s because she’s a Muslim, and hails from Pakistan.

As the novel opens, Sophia has recently broken up with her fiancée, Imran. The reason? He expected her to move in with his family, with a hole in the wall. She is outraged! Whilst assuring everyone that her heart remains intact, Sophia can’t believe that her ex doesn’t text her, or return her messages. Is she really over him?

On the tube to work, a fellow commuter calls Sophia a terrorist. Outraged at this racism, she shouts at him.

“Terrorists don’t wear vintage shoes, you ignorant wanker!” As others edge away from her, she wonders how she can convince a train full of people that she is not a terrorist. She buries her head in her book, then realises she’s reading, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Such humour peppers the text of this bright and breezy debut. It will appeal to fans of Bridget Jones, and it will educate them too. And that’s the great thing about this novel. It’s timely. With Muslims currently distrusted, Sophia’s story will do much to elucidate, without being earnest.

Sophia wears a hijab. She prays five times a day, often having to disappear from a book launch she’s hosting in order to do so. She doesn’t go to pubs or clubs. She doesn’t dance. She wants to marry a Muslim. And this is all, entirely by choice.

Sophia’s mother and sister don’t wear a scarf. They would far rather Sophia show her beautiful hair. How else, her mother wonders, will she ever attract a man?

“People get married two, three, four times, and you can’t even find a man!” For Sophia though, it’s simple. She loves God.

Her work colleagues are intrigued by her. And when, during an ideas meeting Sophia mutters that she should write about her disastrous dates, her boss takes her seriously. Offering her an advance of £15,000, she’s asked to write about Muslim dating.

Not sure how to proceed, Sophia starts with her friends. Hannah is becoming a second wife to a married man. Another friend loves her boyfriend; but he’s black, and she fears her family’s reaction.

Joining a Muslim dating site, Sofia hooks up with Naan. But they’re just friends. Aren’t they? Another — hot looking guy — seems promising husband material, until Sofia spots him outside a particular kind of club.

Meanwhile, Sophia’s sister is preparing for her wedding. Her father, who has a health scare, tries his best to give up smoking. The extended family drift in and out of the family house, noisily chaotic. Thank goodness for the tattooed next door neighbour — a photographer from Northern Ireland. He allows her to write the book in his house, to avoid the general mayhem.

At 445 pages, this novel could have done with some trimming, but its fun, feisty and addictive. It deserves to be read.

Sofia Khan is NOT Obliged

Ayisha Malik

Twenty7, €10.85; Kindle, €2.70


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