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An Infidel in Paradise by S.J. Laidlaw

Laidlaw, S.J. An Infidel in Paradise. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2013. Print.

In S.J. (Susan) Laidlaw’s first novel, she takes us to a contemporary Canadian diplomatic compound in Pakistan. Emma, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, has been suddenly uprooted from a comfortable life in the Philippines. Her father has left her family and her mother has moved Emma and her two siblings to Islamabad. Suffering from culture shock, adjusting to a new school, and playing parent to her younger sister, Emma is frustrated and takes her anger out on her family. Emma offends a dreamy young man, Mustapha, whom she meets on her first day at her new school and she is subsequently labeled as rude and racist. However, we know from listening to Emma’s inner dialogue that she is neither, and her interactions reinforce this. In the time-honored literary romance tradition, Emma’s clash with Mustapha does not prevent them from developing feelings for each other. Mustapha, however, is promised in an arranged marriage. Their drama comes to a head when threats against the American embassies shake the international community in Islamabad, leaving Emma in a life threatening situation.

This novel is well-written and wonderfully real. Emma’s anger with a sub-text of guilt, her raw frustration with her new situation, and her inability to deal with her feelings all rang true. The little touches, like Emma’s interaction with a slobbery dog, hit home: “He licks my hand, which is gross but also comforting. I wipe it on my jeans when he’s not looking”. Emma cares about the people and creatures around her, although she is terrified of being hurt. She is angry at her parents, but she also understands why they separated. Her feelings of being alone are exasperated by the extreme culture shock and she is having trouble coping. Emma’s flouting of local tradition caught me by surprise; for one so well-traveled with a diplomat parent, she did not give much credence to local customs. Perhaps it is her form of rebellion.

Laidlaw addresses socio-cultural issues with honesty and frankness. She does not separate the ‘us’ from the ‘them,’ identifying cultural boundaries but noting the permeability of those boundaries. Laidlaw broaches intercultural conflict openly, acknowledging that her protagonists’ countrymen are not necessarily welcome, but few people mean to cause harm.

I would recommend this book for anyone 12 and up. A somewhat graphic scene near the end of the book may be too much for younger readers. I hope Laidlaw continues with additional novels as these themes are critical to explore and she does it so well. Note: my favorite part of the novel is the Urdu glossary at the back; it’s a very nice touch.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Jorden Smith

Jorden Smith joins the team as a book reviewer. Jorden is a Public Services Librarian in Rutherford Humanities and Social Sciences Library at the University of Alberta.  She is an avid fiction reader and subscribes to Hemingway’s belief that “there is no friend as loyal as a book.”