This is a beautiful novel about adjusting our expectations. Sometimes, things are more or less as we think they will be – but there is beauty and tragedy in the MORE and LESS of that. Imagine that sentiment said far more lyrically.
Radiant Fugitives is the story of a family from Chennai. The family consists of a mother and father and their two daughters – we zoom into their lives in 2010, when both daughters are living in the United States. The story is narrated by elder daughter Seema’s fetus – this is truly Israaq’s journey. It begins with a prologue on the day of his birth, setting up our clear expectations for what will happen to this small family. And still, despite that knowing, there are surprises that are both MORE and LESS of what we want.
The action of the story bounces around in time, but the main storyline centers on the week leading up to Ishraaq’s birth. Seema has been disowned by her father when she came out as a lesbian in college – since then, she has been living apart from her family, with very vague ties to her mother, Nafeesa. Nafeesa may not agree with or understand her daughter’s life, but she has recently been diagnosed with cancer and she very much wants to be present with her daughters as she nears the end of hers. Nafeesa leaves her husband in Chennai and travels to San Francisco to be with Seema for the birth of her child. Tahera, the younger daughter, has been living in Irvine Texas with her husband for many years. Tahera is a doctor and mother of two children. She has also become far more religious than her family, and follows the tenets of Islam with more conviction and rigor than her mother and sister. She has begrudgingly decided to visit her sister in order to be there for her dying mother.
From there, the story moves in and out of the lives of these women. Although Ishraaq may be our narrator, we are really exploring the inner lives of these three women – mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. Seema was devastated by her father’s rejection – she felt sure that her father, a doctor with a deep love of poetry, who doted on Seema her whole life, would understand her need for love and to live an honest life. When she moves away, her absence is felt so deeply by her mother and sister. Nafeesa struggles to maintain some sort of connection to Seema. Tahera ultimately feels rejected by her whole family on some level, even if she understands their dismissal of her isn’t the same as the complete way her father has turned Seema out. Tahera requests a marriage to a religious man, and her father chooses a husband in America, which Tahera suspects is a means of maintaining some sort of connection to Seema. In turn, Tahera finds solace in the structure of Islam, which as you might imagine does not make it easier for her to mend her relationship with her lesbian sister.
Seema, for her part, becomes more politically engaged, particularly around causes related to LGBT lives. She has a series of relationships with women in the United States while also working for various political organizations, but eventually she meets Bill, Ishraaq’s would-be father, at an Iraq war protest. Seema is as confused as everyone else in her life that she would fall into a relationship – eventually a marriage – with Bill. In the prologue, we learn that Ishraaq is conceived just as Seema and Bill are separating, and Bill is not quite a part of the picture for Seema, who is in a relationship with a different woman on the day of Ishraaq’s birth. Nafeesa is able to be present for Seema in part because she has allowed herself to believe that her daughter may not actually be a lesbian, because of her marriage to Bill. It is that fiction she can tell herself that helps her to defy her husband and travel to the United States to be present for her daughter as she gives birth. She truly wants to heal and make up for the time they lost together as a family before she dies. We, the reader, know that things won’t be as simple as that.
Nafeesa is driven by sorrow and regret. Tahera is driven by anger, and that anger exists in her family, as we see in a side plot involving Tahera’s son. In the United States, Islamic communities face real threats – an irony, given how much of that violence is driven by the fear of the perpetrator that is unfounded. Tahera’s son Ahmed is searching for an outlet for his anger, just like his mother. Both mother and son get to feel the consequence of releasing that sort of anger.
The author weaves in the political context of the era in the personal lives of its characters. The novel is written with quite a bit of poetry, and I really enjoyed learning more about Islamic culture / Indian culture. The characters were thoughtfully written. The prose from the baby in utero, poised to experience the most mundane and sublime of all human events, was beautiful without being cloying. This was a lovely, introspective novel.