It is my pleasure to be taking my turn on the blog tour today for Awais Khan’s debut novel ‘In The Company Of Strangers’. Many thanks to Rachel Gilbey, from Rachel’s Random Resources, for including me, and to the author for the copy of the book, which I have reviewed as a reader; honestly, individually and impartially.
Mona has almost everything: money, friends, social status… everything except for freedom. Languishing in her golden cage, she craves a sense of belonging…
Desperate for emotional release, she turns to a friend who introduces her to a world of glitter, glamour, covert affairs and drugs. There she meets Ali, a physically and emotionally wounded man, years younger than her.
Heady with love, she begins a delicate game of deceit that spirals out of control and threatens to shatter the deceptive facade of conservatism erected by Lahori society, and potentially destroy everything that Mona has ever held dear.
The prologue, which sets the scene for this story, makes us party to the tormented final thoughts and observations of a suicide bomber who is making his way into a crowded area in order to avenge his family. When he puts his finger to the detonator, he sets in motion a devastating chain of events.
Ali’s little brother is caught up in the blast, with life changing consequences. To pay for the medical bills, Ali must return to the sleazy work he had hoped to leave behind, despite being extremely successful. He becomes a top billing for the Lahori socialite Meera, who has been newly reunited with her best friend from her youth, Mona, who had married Bilal, a construction magnate, many years earlier. Their social circles are the same; glamourous and bitchy, a superficial whirlwind of parties and home visits which are very amusing to begin with, but palpable tension builds up throughout the story.
It is through Mona and Ali, our star-crossed lovers, that the story is told. The warmth with which these characters’ experiences are told is utterly pervasive and compelling.
I was struck with the author’s ease of writing from a female perspective. I lived and breathed with Mona for the duration of this novel. She has a sense of abstraction from the Lahori high society to which she belongs, allowing us to see the cracks and strains in her life and the lives of those around her.
Although the men believe they are the controlling force in society, there are some very formidable women too. Meera, thrice divorced and fiercely independent, makes it her mission to supersede all others in the pursuit of high society domination. This incenses the cunning and calculating Shahida Elahi, an older woman with a social agenda of her own. Mona’s mother in law, Nighat, is a complex character and I think I ended up liking her, despite her treatment of Mona throughout most of the story.
Away from the high life in Lahore, where secular conservatism is being espoused, young men are becoming radicalised. The dangers of charismatic leadership have been well documented throughout history, in all walks of life and fields of influence and Mir Rabiullah is no exception. He is a monstrous character, and unlike all others in this book, one who the author does nothing to redeem.
Mona experiences huge anxiety about the bomb attacks in Pakistan, which seem to be increasing in frequency and moving closer to the circles in which she moves. She is treading a dangerous path herself and there is great risk in what she does.
The plot of the novel is so compulsive; I found myself reading through the night to find out how Mona and Ali’s troubling situation would resolve.
I have experienced Istanbul through Orhan Pamuk, Kabul through Khaled Hosseini and now Lahore through Awais Khan. He is an author to watch, and I hope that he continues to write much more. As English speakers, to have language barriers broken down for us by skilled writers and translators, we are gifted access to recognise ourselves in others and to see the similarities in human society, no matter the location or culture.
Without reservation, I highly recommend In the Company of Strangers. It is an emotionally charged, stunning debut with masterful characterisation and a tremendous sense of place.
Trigger Warnings: domestic violence, bomb blasts and associated injuries, self-sacrifice, pregnancy related triggers.
This is of course, a blog tour, and there will be many unique perspectives on ‘In The Company of Strangers’ and I would urge you to read them. Some have interviews with the author and on others there are extracts from the novel.
If you would like to order a copy, please follow one of these purchase links:
About the Author:
Awais Khan is a graduate of Western University and Durham University. Having been an avid reader and writer all his life, he decided to take the plunge and study Novel Writing and Editing at Faber Academy in London.
His work has appeared in the Missing Slate Magazine, Daily Times and MODE, and he has been interviewed by leading television channels like PTV, Voice of America, Samaa TV and City 42, to name a few.
He is also the Founder of The Writing Institute, one of the largest institutions for Creative Writing in Pakistan. He lives in Lahore and frequently visits London for business.