In the glittering world of Pakistan’s elite, all is not what it seems…
Mona has almost everything: money, friends, social status… everything except for freedom. Languishing in her golden cage, she craves a sense of belonging…
Desperate for emotional release, she turns to a friend who introduces her to a world of glitter, glamour, covert affairs and drugs. There she meets Ali, a physically and emotionally wounded man, years younger than her.
Heady with love, she begins a delicate game of deceit that spirals out of control and threatens to shatter the deceptive facade of conservatism erected by Lahori society, and potentially destroy everything that Mona has ever held dear.
Hi and welcome to my review of In the Company of Strangers! Huge thanks to Danielle for the invite and to Isis Audio for the audio files!
In the Company of Strangers had been on my TBR for a while, I snapped up a Kindle edition last year, and I was planning on reading it early this year to be ready for Awais Khan’s Orenda Books debut later this year (more on that below), so when I heard about this audiobook tour I nearly bit off D’s hand! It’s no secret I love audiobooks in general, and they can be such a fun and efficient way of catching up with your TBR. That was certainly the case with In the Company of Strangers, which turned out to be a clear win for me, I flew through it, always eager to pick it back up whenever I had to stop listening.
In the Company of Strangers kicks off with a prologue that makes you sit up and pay attention. For most of the story, the point of view switches between Mona and Ali. Mona is in her early forties, has two kids in college and is basically living in a golden cage. Materialistically speaking she doesn’t want for anything, but the hubby doesn’t quite comprehend that not everything can be fixed by throwing money at it. Ali is in his late twenties, he has a bit of a chequered past and he is now mostly focussed on helping his family, especially his little brother. There are many years and quite a few cultural differences between the two, but there is an instant spark between them, one that they both try to ignore, especially Mona, as such feelings – let alone acting on them – are pretty much sacrilegious for a married Pakistani woman.
In the Company of Strangers is a love story but also a thriller. There is drama, there is action, there is crime. There is literally something for any reader to be drawn in by. I loved the different genre elements and how they were all woven together. It has a very natural flow to it and in a way I felt it also represents the kaleidoscope of real life, which made it feel very realistic, which I enjoyed very much. From the very start, the writing is so vivid and evocative that while I was listening, the events played out effortlessly before my mind’s eye, yet I never felt bombarded by details. While I was listening, all my other senses sprang into action as well, I saw beads of sweat on foreheads, I felt the heat on my skin, I smelled the open drains, I tasted the metallic taste of blood in the air. Admittedly, I have a very vivid imagination, but this doesn’t happen with all books I read or listen to, it takes skills to draw me in this deep.
As far as I can recall, In the Company of Strangers is only the second novel with a Pakistan setting that I’ve ever read. Pakistan is a country I know little about, and so I truly enjoyed finding out more. There is love for Pakistan between the pages of this book, yet Awais does not shy away from criticising his country and its culture. Through the lives of Ali and Mona and some of the supporting characters, I learnt how Pakistan is a country of extremes: rich versus poor, very traditional versus very modern ideas. Khan highlights how in the traditional households women are to obey, how they will be beaten into submission like an errant dog if they do not. He writes of terrorism and suicide bombing, of male and female models reduced to sexual objects.
Put like that, you might think that In the Company of Strangers is a very heavy book, a bleak read that drags its reader down. Yet it isn’t and it doesn’t. There is bleakness, no doubt about it, but there is also beauty, and strength, and love, and hope. All things considered, I feel that it is first and foremost a very powerful story.
The narrator, Esh Alladi, narrates with drama and flair, somehow making the vivid writing even more evocative. His narration style and voice are very easy on the ears and I found his accents (including Pakistani accents for the dialogues) a pleasure to listen to. He does do the male voices better than the female ones, as is often the case with male narrators, but it is always clear who is talking and most importantly, the female voices never get overly high-pitched or annoying. This is clearly a narrator who knows his own voice, and its limits, and uses it with practised ease and expertise. I’m not so secretly hoping that Awais’ next book will be narrated by Esh Alladi as well, and if so, I’ll be first in line to get my paws on it!
In the Company of Strangers was a huge pleasure to listen to. I loved the story and the narration, and if any of the above sparked your interest, I really do hope you’ll check it out. Get it from Audible here.
Before you go, allow me to give you a sneak peek at what has just become a highly anticipated read for me: No Honour will be Awais’ debut with Orenda Books and I can’t wait for him to take me back to Pakistan! Here’s what it is about:
A young woman defies convention in a small Pakistani village, with devastating results for her and her family. A stunning, immense beautiful novel about courage, family and the meaning of love, when everything seems lost…
In sixteen-year-old Abida’s small Pakistani village, there are age-old rules to live by, and her family’s honour to protect. And, yet, her spirit is defiant and she yearns to make a home with the man she loves.
When the unthinkable happens, Abida faces the same fate as other young girls who have chosen unacceptable alliances – certain, public death. Fired by a fierce determination to resist everything she knows to be wrong about the society into which she was born, and aided by her devoted father, Jamil, who puts his own life on the line to help her, she escapes to Lahore and then disappears.
Jamal goes to Lahore in search of Abida – a city where the prejudices that dominate their village take on a new and horrifying form – and father and daughter are caught in a world from which they may never escape.
Moving from the depths of rural Pakistan, riddled with poverty and religious fervour, to the dangerous streets of over-populated Lahore, No Honour is a story of family, of the indomitable spirit of love in its many forms … a story of courage and resilience, when all seems lost, and the inextinguishable fire that lights one young woman’s battle for change.
The eBook is out in June 2021, pre-order here; the paperback is out in August 2021, pre-order it from Waterstones or Foyles.
Thanks for joining me today! Do check out the other stops on the tour: