It is no small feat for an author to capture world issues from a personal point of view. Sure, many try – and authors like Khaled Hosseini succeed – but often these novels fail to tell a story. Instead they serve as a platform for writers to express their political views.
Theoretically there is nothing wrong with that, but when the actual story gets lost along the way, the reader will finish the book more educated but unsatisfied. This is why newbie author Rosie Dastgir’s novel A Small Fortune is such a delightful surprise. An East meets West tale of family obligations, cultural disparity, and religious beliefs, A Small Fortune makes it clear that even the simplest decision comes with challenges.
The story follows Harris, a Pakistani immigrant living in North England, whose biggest downfall is his desire to please. Twenty years ago he left his poor village to marry an English doctor with whom he fell madly in love. The marriage fell apart leaving Harris with only one thing he cares about – his daughter Alia. Yet Alia, who lives several hours south of her father in London, leads a life he doesn’t understand – or approve of. Harris’s Muslim beliefs are the backbone to his value system – a value system that Alia, who was born and raised in England, doesn’t fully understand or accept. When Harris discovers Alia lives with her boyfriend, disappointment can’t even begin to describe his feelings about the situation.
Harris is far from perfect. Not only does he send his nephew Rashid to spy on Alia, he is a total pushover. But it’s impossible not to have sympathy for him as we watch his daily struggles. Harris leads a lonely life running a corner store that seems to be bleeding money. He suffers from anxiety and heart problems. His slimy and manipulative cousin Namaz dictates his life. Then Harris finally receives a windfall he’s been waiting for – a check for over 50,000 pounds from his ex-wife. Harris considers keeping the money for himself for about two seconds before, upon reflection of Islamic dictates, he decides to give the money to someone more deserving. The decision of the recipient should be easy. He’s already promised it to his Rashid’s poor family in Pakistan. But, like all life choices, the answer is never that simple. Struggling to form some sort of connection with Alia, Harris proposes buying a house in London to share with her – a suggestion that is met with horror.
Harris is filled with anxiety and desperation and turns to Namaz for support. It doesn’t take long to see that Namaz is going to take advantage of Harris’s guilt. He easily convinces Harris to “loan” him the money. Harris eventually gets with the program and realizes he’s made a huge mistake, but as everyone else but him sees coming, Namaz refuses to return the money.
As Harris attempts to figure out his life up north, Rashid and Alia are both doing the same in London. Alia, who’s dropped out of medical school, can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life. Rashid’s personal struggles are even more intense. His efforts to succeed so he can support his family in Pakistan are met with nothing but failure. The “scandalous” life of Alia that he has born witness to doesn’t raise his opinion of the Western world. Unable to figure out a solution to his problems, Rashid turns to an extremist Muslim group for the answer.
This all seems very serious, right? Developing nations’ struggles, the Taliban, the clash of cultures – these all indicate a novel that will enlighten but depress readers. That’s not the case however. Believe it or not, there is a subtle bit of humor incorporated into the story. This comedy of errors is almost Shakespearean with its intertwining plots and disagreements between the young and the old. Characters throughout the novel are caricatures of Muslim stereotypes, gently teasing readers about any prejudices they hold. People with good intentions can make stupid decisions, Dastgir seems to be telling us, but that doesn’t mean things can’t be fixed.