Broken Verses is a gripping novel about love and loss with a mystery at its core. The protagonist, Aasmaani, is a 31-year-old woman living in Karachi, Pakistan. She has gained some renown due to the fact that her mother Samina was a famous women’s rights activist who left her husband (Aasmaani’s father) to take up with a revolutionary poet while Aasmaani was an infant. The Poet (as he was known in Pakistan) was killed 16 years ago, presumably by government forces in retaliation for his criticisms of the regime. Samina disappeared two years after the Poet’s death. Now Aasmaani is receiving strange coded messages implying that perhaps one or both of them are still alive. Shamsie takes us into the past, into Pakistani politics, and into the mind of Aasmaani as she grapples with her conflicted feelings about her mother, the Poet, and her potential love interest, Ed.
The novel begins with Aasmaani starting a new job at a TV station as a writer for a quiz show. Her father and her stepmother Beema are pleased that she is in Karachi again, and her half-sister Rabia, who loves and is devoted to Aasmaani, is hoping she will open up about her feelings regarding the past and perhaps find more meaningful work. The reader knows that Aasmaani has had several jobs that didn’t really suit her abilities; she seems to be an underachiever and/or avoiding the work she ought to do. At the TV station, she meets Ed, a big shot producer and son of one of Pakistan’s most beloved and revered actresses Shehnaz Saeed. Sparks fly between Aasmaani and Ed, with Ed obviously interested in Aasmaani and Aasmaani trying to keep him at a distance but finding herself drawn to him. Their situation becomes complicated by Shehnaz when she contacts Aasmaani. Shehnaz had been a friend of Samina and the Poet, and she has received a message written in code which she believes Aasmaani might be able to read. The Poet and Samina had developed a secret code for communication decades ago. As it turns out, Aasmaani can read the letter but its contents disturb and confuse her. It also disturbs Ed, who has a complicated relationship with his mother.
Relationships between mothers and children are central to this novel. Both Aasmaani and Ed have mothers who are famous and whose lives cast a long shadow. Ed may be the reason Shehnaz quit acting many years ago, and he clearly is easily irritated by her, while Shehnaz bends over backwards to try to appease him. The complexities of their relationship are revealed bit by bit throughout the novel. As more encrypted letters find their way to Aasmaani, the reader learns more about her relationship with Samina and about the Poet. Samina and the Poet frequently went off for long periods of time into exile while Aasmaani stayed behind with her father and Beema. Aasmaani loves Beema, her father and Rabia, but she also has a fierce love for Samina. She is proud of Samina’s activism, her powerful voice and ability to move and motivate crowds. She has joyful memories of her times with Samina and the Poet. Yet at the same time, she feels as if her mother often chose the Poet and his needs over Aasmaani. Aasmaani is convinced that she understands why her mother left 14 years ago and believes she might come back. The question now is whether the Poet might still be alive. As Aasmaani investigates, it seems as if she might be endangering her own life. Both Ed and Aasmaani’s family are alarmed by her obsession and what might result from it.
Shamsie’s writing is a delight. Not only has she created a host of fascinating, complex and sympathetic characters, but she also provides a plot that takes daring turns and deals with other topics which I will not discuss for fear of spoiling the plot. I will simply say that the effects of childhood trauma on adulthood are portrayed with honesty and intelligence. I found myself deeply moved by the novel’s conclusion.