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Book Review: Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman

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By Simon Demetriou

A coming-of-age novel that repeatedly references The Catcher in the Rye is setting itself a hard task. However, while Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion cannot live up to the stylistic perfection of Salinger’s book, Bushra Rehman’s debut novel nevertheless tells a story of adolescence that is important to tell and enjoyable to read.

Indeed, where in some novels, the Catcher references could be an irritating conceit, in Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion, they serve to highlight the stark contrasts between Holden and Razia, Rehman’s first-person narrator-protagonist. Where Holden is a scion of old New York, a privileged white male sent to one then another of the country’s most exclusive boarding schools, Razia is a second generation Pakistani-American, a woman of colour growing up in Corona, a town that has harboured several generations and nationalities of outsiders, and is now a Pakistani enclave. Where Holden flees in prejudiced fear from his potentially ‘flitty’ teacher who merely touches his forehead, Razia is forced to suppress the truth of sexual assault by her best friend’s ‘uncle’ on her journey to discovering her true sexuality as a lesbian.

The point, of course, is one of inclusion rather than a dismissal of the growing pains of one of literature’s greatest characters. Rehman’s story shows us that while insiders can be outsiders, outsiders have to deal with being outsiders in many more obvious and practically challenging ways. And at the same time, Razia’s journey of self-discovery is all the more tortuous, since it demands that she hide from the intimate and highly religious community that has both sheltered and isolated her for her whole life. Put simply, we can imagine Holden facing parental disappointment and scolding for his flunking out of Pencey; when Razia’s secret is uncovered, her doting father tells her outright: ‘In Pakistan they’d kill you. For this you’ll burn in Hell.’

Bushra Rehman’s tale of female adolescence and lesbian identity through a series of powerfully drawn schoolgirl friendships is a resonant one. When added to her sensitive depiction of the immigrant experience, and the mastery with which she evokes the world of New York, from suburban supermarkets to the bustle and awe of the Met, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion becomes a novel that cannot fail to engage a reader in this important retelling of a story as old as adolescence itself.

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