Book Review: Shubnum Khan's 'Onion Tears: A Novel'

by - 11:14

What a lovely debut novel from South African writer, Shubnum Khan. Penguin Books SA sent me a copy for review (thank you!), and I really didn't know what to expect when I started reading it. It turned out to be one of those novels I just couldn't put down. As I turned each page, I wanted to know more.

Onion Tears: A Novel tells the story of three generations of South African Indian Muslim women. There's Khadeejah Bibi Ballim, a first generation Indian. Khadeejah is a hard working and stubborn widow who not only makes a living, but survives, through cooking. For Khadeejah, 'the way someone exhaled after a hearty biriyani provided [her] with a pleasure she never found anywhere else in life. She put her heart and soul (mingled with sadness and lost love) into her meals'. Khadeejah also longs for her homeland and questions being in Africa. Then there's Summaya, her daughter. Summaya is at odds with her South African and Indian identity. She works at a travel agency, is a single mother who lives in a small flat with her 11-year old daughter, Aneesa, and like Khadeejah, also longs for something. Finally there's Aneesa, who longs for her father. Where is he? Why won't her mother tell her about him? Aneesa knew her mother was lying about her father, so with the help of her friend, Hoosen, she goes about trying to find out where her father is and what really happened. 

If I am honest, there are many things I loved about Onion Tears. Shubnum Khan doesn't just give it to you on  a plate (no pun intended). Flashbacks are a central way in which these women's stories emerge. Through Khadeejah's flashbacks we learn about her childhood, her arranged marriage to Haroon, how she became a widow, the treatment she, and other Indians, received during apartheid and more. I was really saddened by one of Khadeejah's flashbacks, where she helps out a younger recently married woman who was being abused: 
'We are stuck with them, because what can we do? We never went to school, well, at least didn't finish ... We never learnt how to do much besides cook. So we stuck with them ... Even the rubbish ones'. 
She later goes on to say: 
'You see men like ours, they think that all that wives are there for is to make babies and fry aloo paratha. You can't get divorced, neh? Your parents won't let you. And you have a child to worry about. What you will do for money? This stupid men with their big brains give us our money'.
I loved Khadeejah, even with her opinions, because she had experienced a lot in her life but was still so strong. She just went on with her life. This was the complete opposite to Summaya. Unfortunately, one incident in her life really affected her - the loss of love - and she held on to that. This loss in turn affects her daughter Aneesa. Just like with Khadeejah, through flashbacks we find out exactly what happened to Summaya. But unlike Khadeejah, being quite introverted (even with her flashbacks) it takes us much longer to find out what really happened.

While it isn't just about food, I also loved the way Shubnum Khan describes Khadeejah's cooking. It definitely made me want to have roti, samosa, biriyani or any of the other delicious meals Khadeejah prepared in her kitchen throughout the novel. I also love the lists all three women created. Khadeejah knew a great deal about husbands and had a list for that (the good ones, the mean ones, the loving ones, the domineering ones, the very bad ones, the sad ones, and the indifferent ones), Aneesa and Hoosen had made a list of rules (from 'you cannot eat bubblegum and chew food at the same time' to 'everyone has a smell - no one can smell their own smell' to 'everyone has faces they hide - especially sad faces'), while Summaya had her theories which accounted for the 'fleshy legs on an Indian woman' (old age, money or European genes), a list on different types of love (the love of mothers, the love of lovers, the Unrequited Love, the Intense Love, the Withering Love, the Physical Love, the Convenient Love, and the Crazy Breathless Love), and her list of things 'Broken-hearted people remember'.

The best novels to me are always the ones that surprise me. The ones that I have no preconceived notions about, but end up really enjoying. That's Onion Tears - a beautiful story about the love, loss and lives of these three women.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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