Review: "Sofia Khan is not Obliged" by Ayisha Malik

I heard about this book via Cornerstones Literary Agents - they are a brilliant gang who offer editorial advice, direction and support -whatever stage of your manuscript- to writers, using both their own wealth of experience and also a network of real life authors. I went on a creative writing course with them many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed myself! So when I noticed that one of them had published their own novel I was instantly intrigued. A book by someone who spends their day editing, proofing, nurturing new talent and presenting the best stuff to agents- a story by someone who knows intimately what makes excellent writing, engaging characters and a well structured plot -no pressure Ayisha.........!

Sofia is a young Muslim woman working in publishing, living at home in London with her parents, who would very much like to see her married and can never resist the urge for a quip or aside about this one thing Sofia seems unable to do. Set the challenge of writing a book about Muslim dating by her boss, Sofia tumbles into the world of love, marriage and online dating and navigates her way through it with wit, humour and shrewd observations. Essentially this is a romantic comedy; light, entertaining and heartwarming. It will make you smile and to be honest, it is the first book that has made me laugh out loud since "Bridget Jones' Diary" - with which it has been frequently compared (and let's face it, it's not a bad comparison to have made about your debut novel considering the appeal, success and longevity that book enjoys!).

Not a big chick lit fan? Well, it's a bit more than that. Sofia is a Muslim and this book is about being a modern, young Muslim woman in Britain. It does challenge stereotypes. Sofia is bored rather than reactionary about peoples responses to her wearing a hijab. Her parents' constant presentation of "candidates" for marriage is comical and endearing rather than oppressive and controlling; they are simply trying to make sense of their daughter's world. Ultimately the family love each other deeply and their exchanges are delightfully humorous -anyone who has parents will feel Sofia's frustration and exasperation. Sofia respects the problem of modern life versus traditional customs. She is devout and her regular prayer routine is mentioned with the same matter of fact casualness as her muffin eating. There is no sex and no alcohol. Malik has created an insightful, authentic voice; subtly challenging preconceptions without moralising but through the presentation of situations and characters who are ordinary, rounded, flawed, realistic and most importantly likeable.

There is a certain comfort in the predictability of the plot but it feels fresher than some of it's contemporary titles and although it focuses on being Muslim, the book has a much more universal appeal. It's lighthearted but raises several serious issues and the section dealing with the loss of a parent is particularly moving. I liked the chatty style, the dry one liners and the sprinkle of slapstick. This book delivers a good giggle, a happy satisfying ending as well as giving you food for thought. The mixture of blog posts, emails, text messages and diary extracts make it a quick read and I promise that when you sit down to "just read the next few pages", you'll find yourself still there an hour later with a half eaten muffin and a cold cup of tea still deep in conversation with Sofia.

Ayisha Malik can spot talent and create published authors out of first drafts. She can tell you what makes excellent writing and what is missing from your manuscript.

And she can write a bestseller!


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