Paperback (also available as an e-book), 978-1-6482-6154-1, 166 pgs., $17.99
October 13, 2020
Suman Mallick’s compact debut novel, The Black-Marketer’s Daughter, pulls readers quickly into a compelling story with complex undercurrents.
Set in Irving, Texas, one of the Mid-Cities between Dallas and Fort Worth, The Black-Marketer’s Daughter explores a topic unfamiliar to many readers: an arranged marriage. More specifically, this well-written tale gives the bride’s viewpoint of how easily a union created within the guardrails of strict culture and ancient religion can spin out of control once exposed to a freewheeling culture where half of all marriages end in divorce and sexual encounters can have few barriers.
Zuleikha Khan has moved to Irving from Pakistan with her Pakistani-American husband, Iskander Khan. Initially, in her strange new land, Zuleikha is proud of, and hopeful for, her marriage. Iskander quickly fulfills the two major requirements of the wedding contract he negotiated with her father back in Lahore: a car and a piano.
Per their marriage contract, Iskander buys her a used vehicle that runs okay but has an erratic radio that he promises to fix, yet never does. More importantly, in Zuleikha’s mind, he also buys her a used piano. She has studied music most of her life, yet never owned any instruments more sophisticated than a harmonium and a small electronic keyboard.
When Iskander asks his wife if her father, a small-time dealer of black-market goods, ever got mad at her for wanting to study piano, Zuleikha tellingly responds: “I was always Papajaan’s favorite and he let me do what I wanted.” That included getting to read some of the banned books he carefully sold.
Mallick has divided his short novel into two parts, and details within the transition from one part to the next are kept to a minimum. Leaving the gap mostly to the reader’s imagination proves to be an effective strategy for keeping the plot moving.
In the first part, Iskander gradually becomes a more controlling husband, while also getting heavily involved in his job. Zuleikha, meanwhile, finds some American friends and becomes closest to a woman who has been married multiple times and now holds jaded views of love and relationships. Zuleikha also begins offering piano lessons, a fateful choice that will soon lead to a horrifying event.
In the novel’s second part (without revealing vital details or the book’s ending), Zuleikha finds herself trying to navigate complexities within the Texas legal system while getting cultural and religious pressures from her own community. Also, her name and plight keep coming up in Texas news headlines. Zuleikha is a victim now, sheltered and protected. Yet increasingly she feels trapped and unheard by those who insist they are only trying to help her. What choices now remain open to her? And which one, if any, will she choose?
The Black-Marketer’s Daughter is an engrossing, well-written tale with a central character many readers won’t easily forget.
The Black-Marketer’s Daughter was a finalist for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize and praised by the jury as a complicated and compelling story of our times. Suman Mallick received his MFA from Portland State University, and is the assistant managing editor of the quarterly literary magazine Under the Gum Tree. He lives in Texas.
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