Book Reviews, Uncategorized

City of Spies – Sorayya Khan


Aliya is a half Pakistani-half Dutch teenager living in Islamabad with her family. As is the case with most children with mixed parentage, she is also confused about her identity. Her family moved to Islamabad from Vienna, where her father was a diplomat; but decided to return to his motherland to answer the call of duty. Aliya doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t really look like the people around her and doesn’t identify with the ways of her homeland, which in many ways is “foreign” to her.Aliya and her siblings continue their education at the American school; something that her father considers to be a privilege. Another privilege Pakistan affords them are loyal domestic helps like Sadiq. At school, Aliya befriends Lizzy and her family; who family gets involved with Aliya’s family in a very complicated manner and this lays out the basic plot of the story.

In the background are the political events of the time. Aliya’s father came to Pakistan at behest of the then Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Soon there is a military coup and the extremist General Zia-ul-Haq usurps power. Bhutto is imprisoned and later hanged. In another noticeable event, American Embassy in Iran is attacked an diplomats are held hostage and the American Embassy in Pakistan is burnt down, an event that directly impacts Lizzy’s family and by extension, Aliya. Lizzy has to leave the country; and at this moment Aliya recognises that she is actually Pakistani; no matter what her parentage is. She isn’t sure if she is proud of it though.

Aliya’s conflict as a “half and half” is depicted very well. I really liked the fact that it is not overtly dramatised. Sure, she is confused at times; but that doesn’t make her a rebel or bitter in any ways. She is otherwise a regular teenager. However, what is remarkable about her is very well developed understanding of right and wrong and to be able to take stand whenever needed. Her absolute loyalty towards Lizzy is also admirable. Aliya truly stands out as very strong character, which was a refreshing depiction of a teenager.

The author has drawn very strongly from her personal experiences. Her background as a journalist is evident in the way she describes the events. The writing is on point; informative, yet creative. This book is a racy read, set in very politically tumultuous times in Pakistan.

What I liked:

  • The novel is very fast paced and the political events of the time are intertwined very efficiently with the fictional set up of the story.
  • The relationships are very beautifully depicted. My favourite was the friendship between Lizzy and Aliya.
  • The characterisation is strong, even a shot lived character like Hanif was very well developed. Also, there are no extras. Each character is there for a reason.

What I did not like:

  • The climax was a major disappointment. The build up to the story was great, so I was expecting a lot more from the climax. But most of it came in the epilogue rather than the climax chapter.
  • Some of the portions were unnecessary verbose, which stood out more so because of the weakness of the climax.

Favorite Quotes:

  • We are defined by the wars we have lived, regardless of whether we can name them.
  • All I’ve said above is true, but as a rule, truth is as wide and all-encompassing  as you let it be, and there is always more of it.
  • The fact was that Americans were always and unquestionable worth more than Pakistanis or anyone else.
  • “Ye afsanah nahin hai, ye hamari zindagi ki kahani hai.”

Overall rating: 3.5/5


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