Lessons in Husbandry can be read on two levels – first, it’s a great, fun story about a Muslim woman who has two husbands, but second, on a much deeper level, it questions the right of a Muslim man to take two wives and why a woman has to accept this without questioning and remain dutiful.
This is Ali’s second novel (her first is Not A Fairytale) and, as with the previous, it is written with wonderful dark humour and poignancy. She doesn’t flinch when writing and surely must challenge the Muslim community with her bold assertions in the novel. The book could make me laugh and cry within the same page. It is written in the form of a memoir, in which the narrator, Malak, addresses her missing sister, Amal. After Amal went missing, Malak marries Amal’s fiancee, moves into her house and into a marriage in which Amal hover as a not-spoken-about presence. Taj, her husband, is a fertility specialist who treats Malak kindly, yet constantly has affairs.
Malak is haunted by Oma, their dead great-grandmother, who often appears as a spectre with her knitting so that Malak can her the click-click of the knitting needles. Look at this to get an idea of Ali’s humour:
“It’s difficult having sex in front of an audience, even if that audience is only one person, and even if that person’s a wraith I’ve conjured into existence, a spectre knitting translucent red-and-purple socks.”
And this, as Oma watches:
“Like now, while Taj is offering me his routine birthday gift of oral sex. I am trying to enjoy myself, but despite all his technical training and theoretical expertise, he still doesn’t get it. He licks at me delicately like I’m chocolate and he’s got toothache.”
Malak owns a cupcake shop, called Celestial Cupcakes with Rakel, her neighbour. Ali’s imagination comes alive here, with her descriptions of the cupcakes these two create: : ‘daisy cupcakes with sugar butterflies hovering above them, Valentine’s Day cupcakes in hearts of all sizes and those of the less sweet, more sexy variety, from frilly undies to body parts.’ Their speciality cupcake is the ‘guardian angel cupcake – chocolate, strawberry and vanilla angels, all with silver-coloured sugar wings and spun-sugar angels’.
Precious is another neighbour, Taj’s cousin, whose real name is Farid. He hangs around Malak’s house like a ‘spare, unwanted husband’. He is a wonderfully eccentric character, who goes through different phases ranging from drugs to religion to sex dolls. Malak encounters him one day buying the sex doll online, an anatomically correct doll, with the choice of a permanent or removable vagina. ‘He pays an extra 40 dollars for her to be waxed, like a good Muslim girl.’ Precious also, though, acts as a device through which Ali can make non-Muslim readers (like me) aware of the interpretations of the Qur’an, as he is studying “a post-graduate degree in something vaguely religious”
Malak lives her life in a detached way, always feeling like the inferior child to her brilliant missing sister, until she meets Darya. Darya is an artist – they get stuck in a lift together and Malak is instantly attracted to him. As they part, she says, “My skin feels blistery, hot as a new-blown piece of glass, and as malleable.” She can’t shake him from her mind, she falls in love. With Taj working so hard at strange hours, and philandering, she has time to spend with Darya and after the first time they have sex, she gets into bed with Taj that night and wonders about men who have multiple wives or have multiple affairs: “How do they indulge in cross-pollination without guilt?”
Yet Malak takes a second husband. When Darya asks her to marry him, she agrees. It’s madness, she knows, but she does it. Here the deeper themes of Ali’s book comes through, in a quiet undercurrent that challenge Muslim beliefs: “Weren’t we told in madressa that getting married fulfils half our duties as Muslims? So surely marrying two men would mean satisfying one hundred percent of my obligations?”
Malak is able to manage being married to two men, because Darya has to go to England to teaching art at a college in England for six months. They stay in touch via instant messaging, and Malak arranges a trip there, telling Taj she needs a holiday on her own.
I don’t want to give the rest of the story away, as it will spoil the climax for the reader, suffice to say that Malak’s situation is sorted out in a tragic, sad conclusion in which she learns how her sister went missing.
Read this book for its beautiful writing, but especially for Shaida Kazie Ali’s special sense of humour and wonderful imagination that make her novels such a treat to read. She is one of the most original authors in South African fiction.