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Pickle Me This

September 9, 2020

Seven, by Farzana Doctor

A remarkable balance is required to create a novel about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that is also a pleasure to read, but Farzana Doctor pulls it off with Seven, a book that is also about marriage, family, motherhood, sexuality, and rediscovering one’s self and purpose at mid-life.

Sharifa has left her job as a teacher in New York City, and travels with her husband and daughter to India, her birthplace, where her husband will be working during his sabbatical. Other than homeschooling her daughter, however, Sharifa isn’t sure how she will spend her time in India, until she decides to partake in a research project to learn the story of her great-great-grandfather, a wealthy philanthropist who was married three times—and in his second marriage was possibly divorced?

Her marriage has just gone through a rocky patch, and so restoring that relationship is also in the forefront of Sharifa’s mind, as she becomes reacquainted with her aunts and cousins, and then realizes that her cousin’s online activism against FGM practices in their Muslim community (“khatna”) strikes much closer to home than she’d ever imagined. Turns out this archaic practice might not be talked about, but it still takes place today.

The different threads of this novel are woven powerfully. and culminate in a terrifically moving story, in particular a scene where Sharifa and other members of their community (including Sharifa’s excellent husband) gather together to publicly protest khatna, disrupting a long-held taboo. There are moments where this novel of ideas becomes much more driven by those ideas than the story itself, but I forgave these , because the book was so enveloping, and Sharifa’s awakening as to her own history was poignant and absorbing, ultimately hopeful and galvanizing. I loved having her voice in my head.

I also loved the historical thread of Sharifa’s great-great-grandfather, and its resonance in the contemporary story line, and how it all comes together so satisfying in the end.

But then the very end, oh my gosh, it destroyed me. The hardest, bravest literary choice, considering the world we live in, and how tidy endings make us too comfortable. I liked this book a lot throughout, but the leap Doctor takes in her book’s epilogue is so awesome and necessary, underlining the urgency of her message—and about how the pleasure we might take in reading this book (while we do) is actually far from the point.

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