Nadia David’s “An Imperfect Blessing” is a beautiful novel that captures culture, religion, and discovery of identity, combining the three into an educational as well as enjoyable work of fiction.
Set both in 1993 and the 1980s, the story easily slides between characters and timeframes, proving that history is never really consigned to our past. The sections in 1993 were relatively light, focusing on the lifestyle, but the sections in the 1980s were more on the heavy subject matter of violence as the apartheid government was at the apex of its aggressive narcissism. Nadia brought out the atrocities and tragedies of apartheid, making the novel realistic.
For example: the military invasion of the primary school where teargas was released,
“Okay, now, one by one, come wet your handkerchief in this bucket. When you walking home, if you smell something or the air looks cloudy and you can’t see, you put this on your face” (Mrs Dean) pg 321
Other events include Waleed and his friends witnessing a violent betrayal by witdoeke, the making of a child-soldier, the attack on St Athan’s Street mosque, Chris Hani’s assassination, and of course, the ugly face of racism.
“Just last week he had got into an elevator, a woman had surreptitiously clasped her hand over her watch and he had felt an urge, both new and total, to punch either her or the wall.”
Nadia Davids is a native of South Africa, and her close ties with Cape Town reveal itself in the novel; the scenery enhanced with frequent mentions of street names and landmarks. The city became a living, breathing space that was as much a character as any person in the novel.
The story follows fourteen-year-old Alia Dawood and her experiences as a young Coloured Muslim teenager, capturing her individual struggles of fashion choices, her parents’ viewpoints, integrated schooling, and having a first boyfriend (Nick). The narrative style often switches between Alia and her uncle, Waleed, a writer who struggles with language, his thesis, and righting the world. Nadia David’s skills of constructing images in the mind’s eye and making people come to life is evident in particularly two scenes; Alia’s trip to Hal’s and Cousin Tasneem’s wedding, where there is the impactful presentation of relationships and societal challenges. An example is how there was a separate “Christian” table at the wedding The relationships depicted are very heartfelt and fantastically expressed. Waleed and Adam are brothers who have different outlooks on life, yet are always in search of common grounds. Alia and Nasreen’s relationship is that of the pure nature of sisterhood. Adam and Zarina Dawood have a relationship of loyalty even in the face of crisis, and a desire to raise their children properly. Alia and Nick’s relationship is beautiful because it’s new and explores all the cheesy aspects of a blossoming romance. Waleed and Anna’s relationship is one characterized by intense love but frustrating cultural differences, mainly because Waleed is a Coloured Muslim while Anna is a White Christian; a fact that Waleed’s mother, Fozia hates:
“Today she would send his family greetings and condolences she knew they would never receive. These undelivered messages would be tucked away in an ever-growing pile of small slights, unreasonable requests and large omissions, until they could be called upon in an argument”
Waleed and Anna also have confrontations in their pursuit as writers, with Anna progressing in her thesis, and Waleed’s work sitting in a ‘scrappy effortless pile in the study’
“You are so intimidated that you can’t even read your partner’s thesis…Waleed, you want someone who is going to run after you and tell you you’re wonderful and read everything you write and put up with your moods and be a conduit for all kinds of anger that’s got nothing to do with me, and I just can’t do that anymore. You keep me on some kind of emotional diet. I never feel full”
Nevertheless, Waleed was crafted as a realistic person, incredibly likeable because he always made efforts to work for the greater good of others. There’s an important quote on page 347:
“He didn’t tell Rashaad that he hoped never to stop being angry, not he wanted to live in a state of perpetual rage, but because the anger was a way of remembering.”
What Waleed is saying is that he is not afraid of anger-his own, or others’, and that remembering is not just about dates and memories..it’s also about feelings, about the emotional ecology of a particular time and place( Nadia Davids).
The big question you should ask yourself is not why you are angry about injustice, but why you are not angry. The book is a beautiful portrait of family that gives you a feeling of satisfaction after reading, but the message could have been passed across in lesser words. Some descriptions felt drawn out and could be overwhelming, even tiresome to read. In conclusion,
“An Imperfect Blessing” is a very impressive novel that manages to tackle a wide range of subject matters: the coming of age of Alia, Waleed, their family, and a nation that is shifting away from Apartheid. Anyone interested in race, colonialism, religion, multiculturalism, academia or wants to know more about South Africa’s transformation and the Mandela presidency as seen through the eyes of a Muslim family ,would find this book appealing because it expertly weaves each of these topics together.
Written by Adeyemi Christianah