Henna was thirteen when she was gleefully married off to the eldest son of one of the best families in Calcutta, and her marriage was achieved by an audacious network of lies as elaborate and brazen as the golden embroidery on her scarlet wedding sari.
If you start a relationship with a lie, how much of your life together becomes a lie? Is the art of lying inherited and passed on into the next generation or just something humans do in order to survive? Bitter Sweets is a story that explores the rippling effect of one initial falsehood through a family, started by a marriage arranged by deceit.
Bitter Sweets begins with Henna Rub, an underage Bangladeshi shopkeeper’s daughter, marrying into the established landowning family of Ricky-Rashid and ends, fifty years later, with a family gathering in a London park to witness a performance by Henna’s grandson’s rock band. The story in-between details how these two events come to be linked, following the family of Henna to London where their only daughter, Shona, elopes with Parvez, a penniless Pakistani. Shona and Parvez settle down and eventually Shona gives birth to twin boys – Omar and Sharif. As the boys grow up they soon learn the discipline it takes to hide your secrets and the lies you have to tell in order to keep them.
I came to love Farooki’s connective, multi-voiced narrative when I read The Good Children last year and was so pleased to see it back in action – even though, technically, Bitter Sweets was written first! She effortlessly weaves multiple narrative strands and voices together to create a very real and believable story that not only crosses the ocean but also the ages. It’s a dramatic, heart-warming and tragic story of how close a family can be and yet how far away they seem from one another, exploring the age-old conflict of duty vs desire.
With deception pouring out of the mouths of every character and the suspense of a reveal ticking down with the turn of every page, Farooki’s debut novel reminded me of a medieval revenge drama. It is a family-centric tale that effortlessly exposes each character’s thoughts and becomes an almost claustrophobic narrative due to the close relationship of the core characters for, in this family, secrets only last a matter of time…
The only criticism I would throw at Bitter Sweets is how quickly and cleanly all the loose ends tie up at the end. The beauty of Farooki’s tangled web was unknotted and uncovered in a mere few pages. I was awaiting an explosive finale with repercussions aplenty and actually it was a little bit more like a damp squib of mild annoyance. This didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book but a point worth mentioning anyway.
Farooki creates some splendid characters and sublime situations that you can not only identify with but also enjoy exploring. Bitter Sweets is a fantastic easy-read debut on which she has built some other great titles and I look forward to reading more Farooki in the future!