Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman; Flatiron Books; 288 pages; $27.99
Acceleration steers all things in Manhattan, and those that aren’t on the island, must watch from the distance. Starting just off screen in the mood of Dos Passo’s Manhattan Transfer, Bushra Rehman’s Roses in the Mouth of a Lion follows Raiza, who can only see the buildings and people of Manhattan “across the river but can’t join them to play” – not first as a child watching her Pakistani family adapt to their Corona neighborhood and not later as a teenager eyeing the world with curious, protected eyes. It is only when she is accepted into Stuyvesant High School, taking the train daily into the East Village so far away, that she becomes free to move about without the peering eyes of her family and past. In Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion, Manhattan just as well could have been a brave new world in the American tradition, allowing Raiza to realize who she really wants to be.
Crafted with chronological vignettes of moving, ambitious flashes of a childhood on the verge, Rehman presents a young woman pulled in opposite directions. Punctuated by moments of learning and focusing on the ways that race, religion, and privilege provide the architecture for growing up, the novel follows Rehman’s recurrent character Raiza (featured among her previous publications) as she moves through five sections separated by significant change. Within each section, chapters are distinguished by their replete fullness of Pakistani heritage, and most importantly, the ways in which one’s heritage can press upon, if not stifle, the urge to belong in her own time and place. Raiza watches from below the counter of a bodega as her father struggles to learn business customs in the States, she takes repeated abuse from neighborhood children for her wardrobe, and she fears at all times the outrage of her pious and fiercely loyal mother. These partitions in her life serve as causality in each period’s divide, defined by the loss of a close friend and subsequent emergence of new people, new experiences, and new wisdom.
Building on the principled movement of thirds and in spite of her mother’s insistence, Raiza blossoms like a rose in the different ways she manages her closest friends, even as they drift apart. Soon, Raiza befriends a Pakistani girl her age whose family has just moved into Corona, shocking Raiza’s mother with delight. Proximity’s effects illuminate Raiza’s growing understanding of her own place; however, Taslima is a Pakistani just like her, so why can’t she also listen to the radio? She races each weekend to Taslima’s home to listen to the radio and hear her celebrity crush, George Michael, sing; she “could feel through his gritted teeth, the frog caught in his throat, that he was experiencing what [she] was experiencing: desire.” Raiza knows these feelings are important, and with each step further out, she is placed at odds with her mother’s insistence and rules. Finally, Raiza is faced with the decision of which direction she must go.
It's a coming-of-age in a world not-yet-developed. With a tender eye for sympathy and understanding, Rehman never pushes Raiza beyond her essence. She is beautifully, wonderfully, and romantically true to her family, her religion, and her passions, seeking the answers to all their sources without cursing their oppositions. At Taslima’s home, Raiza can read Catcher in the Rye and study the words of Holden Caulfield as he ponders the ducks of Central Park, just a train ride away. She can dance to Bollywood films, and she lets Taslima persuade her to wear clothes purchased from Goodwill instead of their traditional salwar kameez, posing for a photo shoot in Central Park near the very pond that held Caulfield’s imagination. It’s when their costumes are discovered by her mother after the fact, pleading with her to understand how important it is that she is Pakistani, that Raiza’s strength and fears collide to bring about her growth as an individual, asking, “How could I explain that I wasn’t trying to be American, I already was?”
And now, Raiza gets it. She’s been accepted to Stuyvesant, the prestigious high school academy in Manhattan, where the time on the train and the educational divide between her and Taslima drives its wedge. She’s alone again, and sets out to meet a girl she notices. Together with her new friend, Angela, Raiza skips school to attend museums, visits parts of Manhattan she’s never seen, listens to music she’s never heard, and lets Angela become more than her friend, but her first true romance. It’s on her birthday when Angela surprises Raiza with a kiss that she reaches her true understanding. Desires are essential to understanding our lives, and Raiza knows that she cannot be held captive, choosing to run away at the book’s end.
Rehman works Raiza into the terminal conclusion she cannot escape when word gets to her mother and father of her romance. Choosing to write around the complex issues surrounding family, religion, and sexuality, Rehman closes the novel abruptly with Raiza’s decision to flee. It can seem hasty, but Rehman only asks of us that we achieve our moment of understanding and decide without fear.
Working with a prose that is at once approachable and poetic, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion features the welcoming disposition of a conversation with your best friend. It is a look back, certainly, told in first person of these particular and critical events, each in their own way a glimpse into the unique and devastating circumstances of Muslim Americans making their way in a country that does not understand them. Here, Rehman shows her influences, working Raiza toward the tradition of Augie March when he opens his life’s accord to “go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
Raiza knows she must make her own way according to her own principles. Within the American tradition of the bildungsroman and like Augie March and Holden Caulfield, Raiza is only looking for a place to belong. But even if that place never comes, you can still know who you are.