cover image When We Were Sisters

When We Were Sisters

Fatimah Asghar. One World, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-0-593-13346-0

Asghar follows the poetry collection If They Come for Us with her elegant debut novel, which follows three Pakistani American sisters scrabbling to get by after their father dies. Nine-year-old Noreen, the oldest and de facto caretaker; Aisha, the quarrelsome middle child; and Kausar, the sensitive youngest, are taken in by an estranged relative, referred to only as “Uncle,” who promises them a home with a zoo. It soon becomes apparent that he has taken custody only to cash the checks that the government pays him to care for the sisters (the “zoo” turns out to be a hallway of mistreated pets), and he rules the sisters’ lives with authoritarian neglect, demanding they follow a strict schedule even while he leaves them unsupervised for long stretches of time. The sisters must learn to grapple with their grief while caring for each other and establishing their own identities. Asghar’s poetic sensibilities are on full display in the lyrical and oblique prose (“Brown fingers cradle porcelain, the news spreading fast and careless as a common cold”), and the frequent formal experimentation enlivens the text (for example, one page reads in its entirety: “A bunk bed in exchange for a father./ What idiots. He was our father. We should have asked for more”). The result is a creative telling of a tender coming-of-age tale. [em](Oct.) [/em]