“Not a Fairy Tale” by Shaida Kazie Ali is one of the best local books I’ve read in a long time. Remember in the bad old days how anything South African wasn’t good enough, when overseas was a better place, and our books/music/films were frankly embarrassing? Back then I used to read fiction by English or American authors and believe that we would never have normal books written about normal lives in this country.
Luckily, the local publishing scene is changing so rapidly I can barely read quickly enough and “Not a Fairy Tale” is one of those books I used to wish would be written here. I read it in one sitting (well, in between feeding hungry soccer players, walking the restless soccer-ball-chewing puppy and answering the phone as my son’s social secretary) because I didn’t want to leave it for too long – Shaida Ali had woven a spell around me as though she were my literary fairy godmother.
The story revolves around two sisters – Zuhra and Serena – born of the same Muslim parents, although totally different looking. Born first, Serena is light-skinned and can pass for being white in apartheid South Africa, while Zuhra is dark skinned with “kroes” hair. And then there is Faruk (or Faruk-Paruk as Zuhra calls him) who is the pampered nasty son, the favoured prince.
Serena suffers under her parents’ hands; her father hits her and her mother stops her from going to school after she was found holding a dark boy’s hand. Instead of going to high school, she is made to work in her father’s corner cafe. She marries Zain, a pig of a lawyer-man, after her parents arrange her marriage for her.
Zuhra is wilful and rebellious; she does well enough at school to go to university and then leaves the country as soon as she can. She goes to England where she falls in love with an Englishman, who is not a doctor, much to her mother’s dismay. And who, unlike Zain, is a good man.
The story is introduced and finished by a unseen narrator, whose existence we only discover at the end of the book. The first half of the book tells Zuhra’s story; the second half Selena’s, and their lives interlace throughout the novel. I found Zuhra’s voice to be very funny and often smiled wryly at her black humour. Serena’s story was more painful to read; she had to pay the price for being born with a fair skin into a Muslim family.
Recipes are woven throughout the narrative and they are wonderful, because they are by-the-by; not preciously inserted like they are in some books. My favourite one is Rice Krispies with Bananas, because I still like to listen to the snap, crackle and pop of those little bubbles.
As well as recipes, the narrative is interspersed with fairy tales. But these are not fairy tales as we know them. I have always found fairy tales scary anyway; have done so since I was little. The toad in Thumbelina gave me sleepless nights. In this book, the fairy tales are also scary. They are Shaida’s own wonderful interpretations – terrifying, but terribly funny at the same time.
This book is great fun and is easy to read, but it affected me on a far deeper level than just that. Underlying the sisters’ stories, is a dark undershadow of the realities of life – the awfulness of apartheid, the warped affections of dysfunctional families, the mundanity of normal life, the abuse of women, the sadness of child death, the numbing state of depression.
Shaida Ali has written a book of great depth for her first novel. It is too well-written to be a sugar-coated fairy tale and thank heavens it isn’t. She just has to hurry up now and write the next one.
PS: I know Shaida and have watched this book mature from its first draft. I have believed in it from the minute I read the first chapter. Shaida is a straight-talking, no-bullshit kind of person and I wouldn’t dare write a review that didn’t reflect honestly what I think of her book. So, Shaida, I mean every bit of this review. I wouldn’t have written otherwise.