I requested and listened to the audio version of Roses in the Mouth of a Lion, the story of Razia, growing up in Corona, Queens, part of a large Muslim immigrant neighborhood. I want to say this immediately: this is definitively one of those times when hearing the author read her novel was a phenomenal plus! In fact, I kept re-listening to parts of the book, unable to let myself miss even a minute if I was distracted.
Razia’s family is Pakistani, close-knit, religiously observant and protective. Still, they strongly encourage Razia’s academic giftedness. It is impossible for me to do this book justice, because so much of my response is one of appreciation for the exceptional job Rehman does bringing us into the mind and live of a young, female Pakistani immigrant. Through the story, we understand the complexities that can exist in the religious and cultural experiences of Muslims from different countries and/or different levels of religious observance, The “Aunties” are the older, married women who act as enforcers to the community and command respect. When Razia is a tween, she loses her best friend to a dispute between their families. She then gets close to Saima who is a Pakistani immigrant.
At Saima’s home, Razia gets to watch some American television, not just pre-approved videos and to dance to popular music. When Saima’s older sister goes away to college without being engaged, it’s fodder for gossip. Razia must wear modest clothing and keep her hair long. She must carry out the religious observances required daily of a devout Muslim. She is generally cooperative, but obviously pushing back, particularly through minor conflicts with her mother. Little by little, often in cahoots with Saima, Razia experiments in ways that are increasingly obvious and alarming to her mother. Meanwhile, at sixteen, girls she knows are getting married and having children. Razia at sixteen is in a whole new world, because she was admitted to Stuyvesant High School, an exclusive high school for academically gifted students a long commute from Corona and worlds away from her experiences till then.
So many reviewers describe this as a queer coming of age story and, since the publisher and reviewers give just about everything away, this is absolutely a fair description of the novel. But there are barely hints that Razia might find herself attracted to girls until we are 80% through the book. The rich, beautiful pictures of the coming of age of a Pakistani immigrant girl that we have been gifted with before this theme arises are — all by themselves –extraordinary. We fully get it that Razia’s duty, even though she is allowed to attend Stuyvesant and even though she is expected to go to college is to marry a Pakistani man and have children and keep house. Only then does she meet Angela, a classmate. Angela who is kind of punk/goth. Angela, whose mother works. Angela, whose parents are divorced. Angela, whose apartment is empty all day. Angela, who has her fathers collection of 1970s music. Angela. Razia is instantly drawn to her, wants to be with her, and then falls in love with her. The attraction is palpable as is the danger. But: we can only understand what happens as a result of this relationship because of all that went before these last chapters. Angela never understands the risks Razia is taking or the true nature of her upbringing and family life, even though she describes it. Angela has not read this book.
This is a book about friendship, family and transcendence. Roses in the Mouth of a Lion is one of the best books I have ever read. It is beautifully written, the characters all drawn with care. It is funny, poignant and tragic. The comparisons to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” are apt. It is right up there with my favorites of all time and, when I am through writing this, I will be purchasing a copy so I can read it in print. Highly, highly recommend.