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Review: A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah


The U.S. literary debut of an up-and-coming Pakistani novelist and journalist.

Ali Sikandar is assigned to cover the arrival of Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader who has returned home to Karachi after eight years of exile to take part in the presidential race. Already eager to leave for college in the U.S. and marry his forbidden Hindu girlfriend, Ali loses a friend in a horrific explosion and finds himself swept up in events larger than his individual struggle for identity and love when he joins the People’s Resistance Movement, a group that opposes President Musharraf. Amidst deadly terrorist attacks and protest marches, this contemporary narrative thread weaves in flashbacks that chronicle the deep and beautiful tales of Pakistani history, of the mythical gods who once protected this land. Bina Shah, a journalist herself and now a NYT op-ed writer, illustrates with extraordinary depth and keen observation into daily life the many contradictions of a country struggling to make peace with itself.


When one thinks of Pakistan, depending on who you are, your mind might immediately grasp onto stereotyped perceptions of what you think defines its’ cultural identity and heritage. As a reader, thoroughly enamored by her gorgeous, vibrant novel, A Season of Martyrs, a title so fitting, embraces a powerful and illuminating homage blending generations presenting the heart & soul of those in a region whose suffered convictions beg to be heard.

Eloquent and beautifully written, we are swept into a novel alternating between almost the last two hundred years blending a rich history of familial and culture folklore, myths and historical derivatives from events stemming from commentary and research of Sindh’s past and through the present Pakistan. Connecting the history of a feudal family to the Bhuttos, Shah’s American debut illuminates our minds with a captivating literary voice that permeates from beginning to end.

The novel can be broken down into two blended central themes. One is the perspective told through the eyes of a young journalist named Ali. Ali brings a perspective to the book that represents a voice that never gets heard. He is someone who has had it hard but is determined not to let history repeat itself nor become the expected statistic. His passionate voice from his story of forbidden love with someone who would be considered taboo, familial issues of abandonment, political conflicts and his journey to finding himself opens the reader to a world that many here from a Western perspective don’t really see. Being in a country that’s core is democracy, daily life is taken for granted that you have the freedom to say what you want, live how you want and be who you want without being punished or persecuted. So empowering to see his character evolve and fight for a voice whose silence would be safer, challenges the cultural norms that defined what he is supposed to be. 

Beyond his story perspective, there is the connection to what I would consider the second theme of the book that involves the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with her arrival into Pakistan from exile. The focus within the book was concentrated on the last couple of months of her life until her assassination but we learned through the history of his family her connection with them. What I really loved about her portrayal in the book was that despite the political conflicts and the consequences of believing in a movement that was against the mainstream belief, as a woman in a cultural that having this sort of power was not the norm, it was inspiring to read. I was in my twenties when Benazir was killed but remember how incredible it was for a woman to have such an influence and so much power was amazing consider the limited opportunities for women. 

Overall, I thought this book was amazing. The way she blended the past and the present bringing to life the culture and history of Sindh was such a brilliant narrative. Such a compelling storyteller, you will not only fall in love with the story being told but appreciate the true valor in risking everything for your voice to be heard. I would definitely add this one to your upcoming reading list.

Reviewed by Michelle Bowles 

Pages: 288 pages
Publisher: Delphinium (November 4, 2014)

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