Somebody Loves You is reminiscent at first of an old home movie shot on Super 8 film, the colours saturated but barely in focus: jump cuts from toddlers waddling in snow suits to a garden, a kitten, a blue bowl. This is the camerawork of memory in action, what childhood recollection chooses to emphasise. But from the second page, there is something bigger looming outside the frame: “The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.”
The debut novel of Mona Arshi, whose Small Hands won the 2015 Forward poetry prize for best first collection, focuses on a British Pakistani family in suburban London. The child narrator, Ruby, has a sister, Rania. Their father is “an untidily put-together man with a mild temperament”. Their mother is prone to “accidents” with the secateurs, and “Mugdays”, which bring daily life to a stalemate: “Simple things, like getting out of bed and into some fresh clothes, eating and drinking, have to be gently negotiated, navigated and pleaded for.” The garden, and the elderly neighbour who encourages their mother to work on it, prove to be a salvation. “My mother mulched the vegetable patch”, we are told, and “withdrew from the earth her first crop of firm, silky-skinned aubergines.” But when winter descends, and gardening duties are fewer, the family have to be on standby for Mugduty. Friends are summoned to help; “Auntie Number One”, who is a troubling figure because the girls “knew she lived with a man; we caught sight of her putting up posters for the Labour Party with someone who wore a leather jacket”.
Meanwhile, Ruby stumbles over the word “sister” at school one day, and abruptly stops talking altogether. This isn’t a vow of silence so much as a renunciation of speech, an attempt to opt out of a world incapable of engaging with what she has to say beyond overemphasising the ethnicity of the speaker. For Ruby, speech is an inadequate mechanism for self-presentation: “The first thing you start doing when you start talking is editing.” A neighbour’s backhanded attempts at kindness are accompanied by the phrase “even little brown girls”. Ruby’s pen pal breaks off their correspondence with the parentally dictated note: “[my dad] found out you’re a Paki”.
As the sisters graduate into puberty, their racialisation and its attendant sexualisation begin to poison their forays into the wider world. The girls go to parties where all the men “have names like Russell or Dominic”, where paintings of “lean black men” in “somewhere like Kenya” hang on the walls, where the girls are looked at and the lookers lick their lips. The novel turns on a devastating act closer to home that makes the sisters into a sort of inverted version of Procne and Philomela, where the violated sister is not the silent one. It resists the at times overused feminist admonition to “use your voice”: this is a book about silence as a subversive act of care.
• Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi is published by And Other Stories (£11.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.