Certain stories, it seems, will never stop being adapted, either into other genres and settings, or on to various mediums. One such versatile tale is Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. From a British miniseries to a Bollywood adaptation (Bride and Prejudice) and even an online vlog (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries), it has also crossed genres from the detective (Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James) to the undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and has been a popular base for modern novels (such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary).
Each adaptation has fluctuated wildly in how faithful it is to the original. That is a given, as adaptations can, as a matter of course, differ in what they retain of the original concept. However, while the latest offering in the line — Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last — is quite exciting as it puts a Muslim take on the story, in failing to retain much of Austen’s original plotline or charm, the book loses its allure.
The basic plot of Pride and Prejudice is a proud hero and a prejudiced heroine slowly unlearning lifelong habits and falling in love along the way. It makes for a captivating story. Unfortunately, the execution of this story in Jalaluddin’s novel is weak at best. The protagonist, Ayesha Shamsi, doesn’t have a gaggle of sisters or a mother obsessed with marriage or a Bingley moving in next door. There is, in fact, no character based on Bingley at all. What we do have is an Ayesha whose father died in suspicious circumstances back in India, prompting her widowed mother to move to suburban Toronto with her two children and her parents. Ayesha has a younger brother (nowhere present in the original), a set of grandparents (also missing in the original), and wears a hijab. That’s because Ayesha is Muslim — a refreshing twist which adds another point to the representation of Islamic stories.
But while it is very exciting that Muslim youngsters — who rarely see themselves represented as anything but a teenager about to be recruited for terrorism or, at best, a funny sidekick — can now see themselves as part of the main narrative, it is disappointing how weak the story itself is. Everything from the writing — middle-grade at best — and the characters — so very different from the original — to the plot itself, fail to impress. This might be the fault of the publishers who chose to market this book as a P&P retelling for young adult audiences. This creates false expectations; it would have made more sense had the novel been touted as a story about navigating this world as a regular girl who happens to be a hijabi.
Ayesha’s family includes a Shakespeare-quoting grandfather and cook-extraordinaire grandmother, a moody teenage brother and an overworked mother with a broken heart. Then there is the extended family, complete with flighty younger cousin Hafsa who receives multiple marriage proposals per week and for whom Ayesha is forced to act as the responsible, mature older cousin.
Because of a misunderstanding at the local mosque, Ayesha — who spends her days handling teenage students in her day job as a substitute teacher at the community school while simultaneously dreaming about being a poet — is forced to pretend to be Hafsa. As a consequence, she must now plan a conference with Khalid, the Mr Darcy to Ayesha’s Elizabeth Bennet.
Khalid — in a refreshing turn of events — is an actual practicing Muslim. It is important to get this point across because, even though the occurrence of Muslim characters has increased in recent years, it is still rare for those who practise the religion faithfully to be depicted as anything but evil, much less the actual hero of the story. The Muslim characters you do encounter in much of modern fiction are there as token representation, fine with drinking alcohol and never once mentioning prayers or actual Muslim holidays. This is why Khalid, who wears a thobe and a skullcap to his work as an e-commerce project manager, is such a welcome relief. Our handsome and conservative hero, who believes love comes after marriage, moves to Ayesha’s neighbourhood at the beginning of the story with his widowed mother — a scheming character completely new to the P&P narrative. However, Khalid’s sister, banished from the family to India for mysterious reasons, draws some parallels to Darcy’s sister Georgiana, and Wickham is introduced here as the charming rogue Tarek Khan, a slick conference organiser working with Ayesha and Khalid for the mosque.
A fun thing about reading an adaptation is identifying which parts of the new story were inspired by the original, or where the author linked the work to the source, and Jalaluddin does give quite a few nods to Austen. From the oft-quoted opening line “It is a truth universally acknowledged” to pivotal scenes such as the couple’s first, supremely awkward meeting or the horribly botched proposal, there are brief flashes of connection between this book and the text published in 1813. And since it is an ‘adaptation’, we already know most of what is going to happen. We know Tarek has his eye on Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa and that he is ultimately untrustworthy. We also know that even though there might be misunderstandings at first, our couple will eventually find their way to each other. I will concede that here, Jalaluddin does deliver on what she promises: Ayesha and Khalid, initially not willing to trust or like the other, find themselves taking comfort in each other’s presence and the various scheming characters — threatening to undo it all — ultimately lead our protagonists to fight their own pride and prejudices to find their ways back to each other.
There are several contemporary and cultural nods as well. Jalaluddin uses the story to talk about workplace Islamophobia, with Khalid facing a discriminatory boss and finding help in a supportive human resource manager. Ayesha’s lack of marriage prospects at the age of 27 gets a mention, pointing towards communities that value early marriages. Then there is the reference to political idealism and journalistic principles of fighting to report the truth, as Ayesha’s father died as a journalist fighting for worthy causes in India. Jalaluddin incorporates a number of issues into her story but, unfortunately, her deviations from the original plot, while relevant, don’t manage to retain the reader’s interest.
It is hard to feel invested, much less moved, by the plight of our protagonists — probably because, unlike Austen’s witty commentary on the times or the romantic comedy of manners she sketched, Jalaluddin doesn’t hold that same command over language. In the times in which we live, this story might be important, but here’s hoping there are multiple other adaptations as well, so that with increased representation of the modern Muslim, we also get better literature.