Cat and Fiddle by Lesley Jørgensen is a very interesting book and an accomplished debut. If you are a reader of literary fiction and you’ve been put off by the Austenmania marketing about this title, you may find it worth a second look…
Yes, there are resemblances to Pride and Prejudice. There is a finding-spouses-for-my-offspring plot with matching characterisation, and yes, there is a rural English setting with a nearby estate boasting An Eligible Son. However, Mrs Begum is not looking towards Bourne Abbey, she is seeking spouses for her errant children in the Bangladeshi community and the complication is that all three of them are confounding her expectations (in ways not envisaged by Jane Austen). It’s not just that her son Tariq has become a bossy fundamentalist lecturing them about religious prohibitions, he has other demons that make matchmaking difficult. And her daughter Rohimum and Shunduri are ‘modern’ girls, who haven’t subscribed to the rules of the CV laid down by the Bangladeshi community.
But entertaining as this sprawling plot is, what makes Cat and Fiddle more than just another pseudo-Austen romantic comedy is the exploration of Bangladeshi values and mores. Jørgensen is Australian, but she married into an English Bangladeshi community and she has an insider’s understanding of the problem of reconciling modern life with traditional values. Rohimum and Shunduri are not virgins, and while Shunduri keeps up a farcical masquerade to obscure it, life, as they say, has other plans. On the other hand, everybody knows about Rohimum and her London lifestyle – which makes her unwelcome in her parents’ home because she has shamed them. That turns out to be a problem when she needs refuge from her low-life lover and a chance to remake her career as a serious artist.
Mrs Begum has kept her own name – which might look modern to the uninitiated – but her husband Mr Choudhury has a well-founded expectation that she will wait on him hand-and-foot and defer to his opinions. His pomposity may make a reader chuckle, but his private contempt for his wife will have many feminists gritting their readerly teeth. Perhaps there is some personal payback in this character’s professional troubles?
Jørgensen tackles the vexed question of Muslim modernity head on. I didn’t find the idea that the burqa can be sexy convincing but this is a side issue: the author is more adept at showing how modern Muslims growing up in liberal-democratic societies find it difficult to reconcile the need to feel connected both with their spiritual community and with the wider community that has more open-minded values. It was interesting to see the way Mrs Begum was insistent on distinguishing their brand of Islam from the Arabic version. (I am waiting for someone from the Australian Turkish community to do this in a novel!)
The author has a wry style and the novels moves along well although some of the linkages between plot elements bear unnecessary complications. In trying to confound the expectations of the P&P plot, Jørgensen has given The Eligible Bachelor some scenes that seem disconnected and the Bourne Abbey crowd are all less successful as characters than the Bangladeshis who seem as authentic in the London art scene or its nightlife as they do on the fringes of the estate. From time to time there is an awkwardness in the dialogue or an extraneous bit of plotting that suggests a debut author getting something off her chest, but overall this is an entertaining novel offering food for thought.
Scribe Publications is launching operations in Britain as of 2013 and Cat and Fiddle is included in its inaugural UK catalogue. Although the novel has universal appeal, its cultural origins in the Anglo-Bangladeshi community resonate with other works exploring Britain’s multicultural society such as Brick Lane by Monica Ali and Small Island by Andrea Levy. Winner of the 2011 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript, Cat and Fiddle deserves similar success …
Author: Lesley Jorgensen
Title: Cat and Fiddle
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications
Fishpond: Cat and Fiddle
Or direct from Scribe (including as an eBook).