Written by Shafinaaz Hassim. Published by WordFlute Press. Reviewed by Fatima Bheekoo-Shah.
SoPhia has been in my possession for close to a year, but I felt that I needed to be in the right frame of mind before I started reading it as the story was described as ‘tactile and raw’. SoPhia is exactly that. It touches on the sensitive issue of domestic violence in the South African Muslim Indian community. The issue is not skirted around but tackled in an honest and shocking way that I have not seen before.
“Zarreen thought that her eyeballs might pop out of their sockets if he squeezed his hand tighter around her throat. There was no time to escape. Not even in her mind. She banged her palms against him, fighting to escape while her lungs struggled for air. Her legs dangled, as if detached from her body. The walls of her bedroom whirled around her, a witness to her humiliation, her doom.” (SoPhia) These opening lines set the precedent for the rest of the novel.
The back cover of the book has a gentle reminder that while SoPhia is a love story, it is not a romance novel but rather a compelling narrative of hope, compassion, self-realisation and rebirth. The novel is primarily set in Johannesburg, South Africa. The main characters are Zarreen Kader and Majid Akram Noorani. They are a typical middle class couple living comfortably in the sprawling northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Everything looks rosy on the surface, as that is the way Zarreen likes it to be, but this couple hides the ugly truth of their domestic violence and rape. Zarreen is oblivious to the fact that this could be having an effect on her children or maybe she is more oblivious to the fact that the abuse is having an effect on her as well. Evidently the cracks start to appear and the couple is forced to face their demons and the reality of their actions. Soon you are swept up in the couple’s journey of self-reflection, compassion, hope, love and forgiveness. We also come to know the relevance of the name of the novel when for a short while we are taken to the shores of Mauritius.
SoPhia is written beautifully and I often found it read more like a personal narrative than a novel. Shafinaaz is lyrical in her use of language to describe even something as insignificant as a typical Johannesburg summer afternoon thunderstorm. She draws you into the novel cautiously, you don’t know what to expect and then slowly you can feel each punch as if knocking your own wind out. While it centres on domestic abuse in a Muslim home, this narrative could be found in any home around the world experiencing abuse. Shafinaaz weaves her words in such a way that you find yourself an eyewitness to the lives of the main characters. She tackles the subject of domestic violence in a unique way but not in a way that the subject is skirted around unrealistically.
While Shafinaaz’s talent as a storyteller is evident and the storyline engaging I did find that at times the book had unnecessary distractions in the form of the personal stories of the other characters in the novel. I did not find them to have any relevance to the main storyline and at times I did wonder what was the point. The book moves at a good pace but the subplots occasionally did put clogs in the narrative’s wheel.
SoPhia engages you on an emotional and intellectual level and at times the subject matter was hard for me to digest. Domestic violence in the Muslim home needs to be discussed on all levels and with complete honesty. As much as we would like to not air our dirty laundry, the truth is that it exists. Shafinaaz’s novel is a primer to this conversation our society needs to have.
Fatima Bheekoo Shah is a wife, mother food blogger, foodie and breast-feeding activist. Finally answering her calling to be a writer.