Alia, a young woman born of a British mother and a Pakistani father, works hard during the events of A Small Fortune to mend her fractured relationship with her father. Indeed, that relationship is one of the principal axes around which the events in this funny and touching debut novel revolve. The story captures the friction generated by other conflicts as well: that of cultures when immigrants try to adjust to a new land, that of the zealous-but-cowardly trying to get the too-trusting to do their radical and destructive bidding.
This is the story of Harris (the Anglicized name of a Pakistani man who has immigrated to London), and his extended family. Harris has survived a toxic marriage (alluded to in the novel, but not part of its events) and reaped a tidy sum in settlement. As a devout Muslim, he seeks a way to unburden himself of the funds, and help his family and loved ones in the process. He unwisely settles the entire amount (more than ₤50,000) on a sleazy cousin who spends a good part of it on flashy components and resents forever after any suggestion that he might pay some of it back.
Harris is a sad sack throughout much of the book. Author Rosie Dastgir (a onetime Londoner of mixed British and Pakistani parentage) imbues him with a strong urge, but not quite the courage, to do right by his family and his faith. He shies away from asking his cousin for a return of any of his funds. He shies away from his own beloved daughter because she lives like a modern Londoner, which is clearly what she is, instead of a chaste young Muslim woman. His attempt to dictate his morality to Farrah, the charming widowed professor with whom he develops a relationship, at length estranges the two. I had a hard time crediting this sort of behavior in 21st Century London, but I must thank Ms. Dastgir for the humanity of this character, and for the forlorn humor involved in the portrayal.
That’s where this book is really strong: the author gives each and every character a full human shading and nuance, from the main players to the ones we only get a glimpse of. Harris’s young nephew Rashid goes through a gratifying (from the reader’s standpoint) crisis and redemption, but my hopes for a clearer settling-up of accounts elsewhere came to nothing: the sleaze-bag cousin gets himself elected to the town council and remains impervious to entreaties that he do anything honorable about his windfall. Much of this book relies on a series of willful misunderstanding and intransigence that distances characters from those closest to them. As I say, I found this the most trying area in which to suspend my disbelief.