A little under a year ago I read Huma Qureshi’s short story collection Things We Do Not Tell the People We Love, enjoying it so much I jumped at the chance to review her first novel. Many of Qureshi’s stories explore family and relationship dynamics, a perennially interesting theme for me, as does Playing Games which follows Mira and Hanna, sisters two years apart, who lost their mother just as they were beginning to find their places in the world.
This is the way they are with each other; it’s a dance they do. They love each other, annoy one another until they hate each other and then feel bad about it and so they pretend like nothing ever happened, start again, and love each other all over.
Hana is the eldest, a successful divorce lawyer, perfectionist and controlling, whose marriage to the easy-going Samir is often scratchy, quarrels swept under the carpet unaddressed. Mira dropped out of her degree when their mother died a decade ago, now working in a coffee shop watching the clock tick down to the deadline for a prestigious playwriting prize she hopes to enter. She’s stalled: her idea failing to take shape despite the encouragement of her teacher. Hana is the lynchpin of Mira’s life, providing a place to stay over when needed and groceries to take home but unable to talk to her sister about their mother and her loss, making sure to keep her protective carapace intact. Nothing deflects Hana from her life plan until her assumption that Samir shares her determination to have children is challenged provoking a crisis. When Mira overhears an exchange between the couple she shouldn’t, an idea for her play is sparked. A year later things look very different for both Hana and Mira.
It’s never occurred to Mira before, how interesting it is to observe her sibling as a writer would, to notice her quirks as character details.
Qureshi shifts her narrative smoothly between the two siblings, Mira’s precarious way of life contrasting with her sister’s tight control. Hana’s inability to acknowledge grief, burying of emotions and determination to keep control of everything, impossible as that is, are heartrending at times a counterpoint to Mira’s blossoming confidence. Alongside their relationship, Qureshi perceptively explores mismatched expectations in a marriage where communication is next to non-existent. Her theme of writers’ use of family and friends in their fiction prompted me to wonder how much she might have done this herself, although she’s careful to point out in her acknowledgements Mira and Hana bear no resemblance to her own siblings. I enjoyed Qureshi’s novel although not quite as much as her short story collection which missed my books of 2022 by a squeak.
Sceptre Books: London 9781529368741 320 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)