Review: Playing Games by Huma Qureshi - Hindustan Times

Review: Playing Games by Huma Qureshi

ByRahul Singh
Feb 29, 2024 07:16 PM IST

A novel that follows two sisters and an unravelling marriage examines what it means to have a family and also the setbacks that families can bring

British-Pakistani writer Huma Qureshi’s Playing Games presents two thirty-something sisters, the story of a failing marriage, and the life of a woman who is struggling to write a play. As alternating chapters show each of the sisters’ perspectives, the reader follows the women as they attempt to understand life and its heartbreaks in London. Mira, the younger of the two, works at a café when she’s not fighting with herself to write a play about a woman lying on the pavement. She wants to apply for a playwriting prize but needs to have a play in place to do that. Her insipid life seems to provide no inspiration whatsoever to move beyond the pavement.

Life and heartbreak in London (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Life and heartbreak in London (Shutterstock)

Hana, the elder sister is a divorce lawyer. She’s good at her work, has an enviable home and skincare routine, and is married to a man who is ready to put up with her odd requests of maintaining decorum in the house. She has everything in place. The only piece left to finish the ordered puzzle is a child. She’s been married for six years now. Surely, they should be starting a family at this point. But Samir is uncertain.

320pp, ₹1679; Sceptre
320pp, ₹1679; Sceptre

Qureshi has done a skilful job of placing these two opposing personalities in a single book with chapters giving rich details of what each one thinks of the other and themselves. The novel’s structure blends the mood and tensions of the plot effectively. I was curious to keep switching back and forth to know how the sisters would respond to events taking place in their lives. Take the issue of the party happening towards the middle of the novel. Both sisters hate celebrating their birthdays. It so happens that Samir gets a cake on the night before the party being thrown by Hana to uplift her mood. Her tepid reaction to her husband’s efforts, Samir’s frustration at her, and Mira’s dissatisfaction at the crowd and her sister’s carelessness all snowball to create a riot at the party. Throughout the novel, Qureshi has been moving towards this point in the story and it’s where her writing peaks. The portrayal of the three characters and their inner dynamics resonates with contemporary forms of sociability and conflict.

An unravelling (Shutterstock)
An unravelling (Shutterstock)

Readers of Sally Rooney’s works will find faint echoes of Frances’s confusion and the struggle between Melissa and Nick from Conversations with Friends (2017) in this novel. Mira’s desperation to make it as a playwright is suddenly impeded when she overhears her sister and Samir fighting over having a child. She obsesses over their argument so much that she abandons the girl lying on the pavement and begins writing about her sister’s failing marriage. An unsuccessful 31-year old, who has been feeling perpetually homeless since her mother died, there is a sadness to Mira that speaks through her inconsistency; an innocence when she gives in so easily to Dominic, the man who heads the playwriting group at a bookshop.

I was a little worried when I began reading Hana’s portion and prayed for it not to be a stereotypical representation of an ambitious woman who’s ruthless and demanding because she made it big. That caricature is exactly what Hana is but Qureshi unveils her further as she struggles with her husband. That headstrong woman finds herself going through the rabbit hole of the Internet in an attempt to reassemble her life and regain Samir’s interest. She silently cries over her laptop screen reading, “The moment he moves out of your bed is the moment you know it’s all over”. The author has captured Hana’s debilitating sense of self when she realises that her answers to one thing keep changing at all times of the day. She’s no longer the stable, consistent woman she had groomed herself to be. Perhaps, life never turns out the way one plans is what Qureshi wants to say through Hana.

Author Huma Qureshi (,uk)
Author Huma Qureshi (,uk)

Despite the characters’ South Asian-sounding names, the question of their ethnic identity can keep buzzing in readers’ minds. When Mira is trying to not make her play sound like Hana and Samir’s life, she wonders how to place the characters in the play. She does not want to “specify their heritage”. The story should be “universal”. Such a political positioning comes at a time when the use of authentic voices — through and for the underrepresented — is becoming increasingly relevant. Qureshi practices what Mira does too. She makes the story more English, more British. For the reader, whether this is annoying or enjoyable could depend on their own attitudes to questions of religion, ethnicity, and race. As it stands, Hana and Mira’s experiences become too much of an exploration of class, gender and sexuality. But Qureshi also raises an important question by making this move: within the literatures of the Global North, why is it that only non-white writers have to ground their characters’ reality so distinguishably as other? Why can’t they write a story that can be universal?

Qureshi writes with love. The simple and moving sentences come together from a place of care. There is an ache left behind when tension brews. The most beautifully-written scene is the one where Mira enters a new flat quite late in the novel. It’s where she hopes to finish writing her play for the prize. This is a perfect recreation of an awestruck Elizabeth Bennet walking around Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

Playing Games is brilliant novel on what it means to have a family, to make a family, and the setbacks that family brings to you. It stirs the readers into a moving imagination of home and belongingness.

Rahul Singh is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata. He writes about books at @fook_bood (Instagram) and @rahulzsing (X).

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