A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah

In her U.S. literary debut, Bina Shah takes readers on a journey through the often twisted and incomprehensible political and social history of Pakistan in the recent past. Using a young journalist and the events leading to Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile.  This was my 2015 readathon day choice, and it was perfect for the challenge. Please read on for my review of

A Season for Martyrs

While it is impossible to encompass all of the social and perspective-based impressions from the characters, Shah does present an attitude that is based in both tribal, cultural and religious beliefs, and thoroughly steeped in the history of the people. Pakistan is a ‘cobbled’ country, established in 1947 after the British East India company was ousted (or left, depending on perspective) releasing their stranglehold on India and the surrounding areas.  Essentially what emerged was a bit of religious migration with Muslims congregating in what would become Pakistan and the Sikh and Hindi heading to India.  To this day – there are fractured families and tensions between the variant religious factions in both India and Pakistan. As with most colonialized areas, those in power (i.e. the west) never really was cognizant or cared about the history and political climate, as the colonization was simply for material gain.  This has led to current uprisings, unrest and injustices – possibly even stretching further back into time.

So, with a bit of background, Shah’s story is gripping and engaging – full of political fact and perspective from ‘on the ground’ in her character Ali.  Ali is a reporter with the news, and he shares a similar background with Bhutto: both are from feudal zamindar (aristocratic) families from the Sindh community, although Bhutto’s father was more of a populist and at odds with the majority attitudes of his community. That his daughter would adopt and promulgate those views, and rise to the highest political office available in a rigidly Muslim state, as a woman, is nothing short of miraculous.  Ali’s career choices are much more accepted: both as a man and one of his elevated family history. But all is not as it seems: Ali is in love with a Hindi woman, a travesty and potentially life-threatening danger in the uncertain times. With a fractured relationship with his father and his family, and questions surrounding the true aims of Benazir Bhutto and her return from exile, he’s make efforts to emigrate to the United States, yet another secret in his ever increasing cache.

All is not about Ali and his struggles though, as Shah also details the events leading to Bhutto’s return from exile, and the not insubstantial controversies from both supporters and detractors. So many elements are in play in this story, yet Shah manages to keep people straight and explain traditional beliefs, family ties and that history without it becoming overwhelming. There are plenty of things to keep straight, and at first it does feel a touch overwhelming, but Shah’s writing is smooth and she adds nuance and never talks “down” to her readers. More compelling than an utterly twisted mystery with multiple suspects, Shah draws you in and provides a bit more understanding of the people and what is important to them, and possibly you will find some common ground.  Far more informative than any 3 minute ‘news story’ could ever present, I closed the book feeling I understood the country and its climate just a tiny bit more – and that is really the best thing that could happen.

In some ways, this was an introductory course in modern Pakistani politics that reads like a fictional novel: compelling, emotional and most of all engaging the reader to see and experience the world through another’s eyes.

A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah

Title: A Season for Martyrs
Author: Bina Shah
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published by: Delphinium
Published on: 4 November, 2014
Pages: 288
Audio Length: 9 Hours: 1 minute
Rated: four-stars
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The U.S. literary debut of an up-and-coming Pakistani essayist and novelist

This novel revolves around the last three months of Benazir Bhotto's life -- from her arrival back in Pakistan in October of 2007 to her death in a suicide bombing on December 27th -- as told through the eyes of Ali, a young journalist who is the estranged son of a wealthy landowner.

The contemporary narrative has flashbacks to the history of Ali's feudal family, Sufi mystics, a warrior clan, and the history of outside British and American interference.

With Bhutto serving as the centerpiece of the deadly turmoil, Bina Shah reveals the many contradictions of a country that is struggling to enter into modernity.

A Season for Martyrs is her US debut, and we have lightning in a bottle with this very, very talented novelist and journalist.

A copy of this title was provided via Media Muscle/Book Trib for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

About Bina Shah

Bina Shah is a writer of English fiction and a journalist living in Karachi, Pakistan. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a regular columnist for the Dawn and the Express Tribune, Pakistan’s major English-language newspapers, and has also contributed to international newspapers The Guardian, The Independent, and the International Herald Tribune and international journals Granta.com, Wasafiri and Critical Muslim.

Bina was born in Karachi, Pakistan and was raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Pakistan. She holds a degree in Psychology from Wellesley College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a fellow of the University of Iowa, having participated in the International Writers Program in 2011. Her humorous writing, political satire, and clear-eyed view of social issues have earned her critical praise and a devoted following amongst Pakistanis all over the world.

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