Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

 via Harper Collins.

via Harper Collins.

As a more-than-casual enthusiast of Pride and Prejudice and its many, many adaptations, I found Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last—marketed as another reworking of  Pride and Prejudice —surprising. It does not strictly adhere to the tried-and-retried formula of Austen adaptations, but rather maintains an admirable commitment to its chosen twist: modern, cross-cultural, and Muslim. The novel is an homage to Pride and Prejudice in the truest sense of the word.

There is a clear connection between Ayesha and Elizabeth, and Khalid and Mr. Darcy, but Jalaluddin does not chain herself to direct equivalents. Doing so would probably have been very difficult—transplanting the classically English Elizabeth and Darcy to a modern day Muslim-Canadian community in Toronto necessitates the taking of liberties. In doing so, Jalaluddin enriches the pride and the prejudice at the centre of Austen’s classic. In addition to questions of gender and class, she introduces the complicating dimensions of religion, and, to a lesser extent, race. Ayesha and Khalid are both Muslim, but between the two of them and among their community, what it means to be Muslim—a “good” Muslim woman, or man—is a point of contention, and it is also the root of the misunderstanding between them.

Ayesha At Last does take from its inspiration the deliciously slow and stubborn way the protagonists fall in love. Like their predecessors, Ayesha and Khalid are separated by a number of barriers, with the most significant being the ones that they have put up themselves. Ayesha begins their acquaintance with a lie. Khalid chooses to judge her prematurely, and Ayesha makes a hasty conclusion about Khalid’s character as a result.

Interesting as Jalaluddin’s variation is, the adaptation is not quite enough to free her from the occasional and overarching clichés of a story that has been rehashed so many times, and for so many years. Jalaluddin sometimes simplifies what could be a rich and complicated relationship, and some of her characters’ choices and behaviours seem like mere cliche. For example, Nana, Ayesha’s grandfather (and the rough equivalent to Mr. Bennet), speaks in Shakespeare quotes.

What Jalaluddin does accomplish with Ayesha At Last is a welcome remixing of the way men and women fall in love in fiction. Neither Ayesha and Khalid follow the Western script of dating or romance, nor do they exactly follow their families’ traditional script of arranged marriages. They honour their families’ traditions in their own respective ways, as a choice, and the choice empowers them. Jalaluddin has also crafted a new and refreshing kind of Darcy. Rich, handsome, and inscrutable Darcy is an established romantic hero, often reused, and usually white. He does not often come in the form of a brown-skinned man who has an unruly beard and wears white robes. Jalaluddin not only remakes the Darcy figure; she also challenges the established narrative ascribed to Muslim men, which Khalid also confronts in one of the book’s subplots. Though the occasional turn to cliche betrays this effort as Jalaluddin’s debut novel, Ayesha At Last succeeds at respecting and playfully recreating what makes Pride and Prejudice such a resilient story in the canon of English literature, while making space for marginalized communities within that canon.

Ayesha At Last is Uzma Jalaluddin’s first novel. She is a high school teacher and writes the column Samosas and Maple Syrup as a Special Correspondent for the Toronto Star. You can read more of her work, and her feelings post-publication, here.