Pakistani authors, writing in English, have come a long way. I remember when I read Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke back in the 90s, I was completely bowled over. I thought ot myself, here is a man who understands the culture and people of Lahore and captured it ever so brilliantly in his book.
However, as I tried reading Pakistani novels at large, sadly for most parts, I found them to be pretentious, long-drawn and just not interesting enough to keep me hooked. Sometimes it’s the subject matter, other times its the vocabulary (yes, we know you can use big words) that just put me off.
However, amidst all these big authors, we have one called Shazaf Fatima Haider, whose first book How It Happened was a quick, short and fun read. Her sophomore book delves into darker territory: jinns, folklore tales, and one rather gruesome death.
The cover of the book shows a tree, with a peacock, a lizard and a beetle on the tree. There is also a firefly, with its light flickering in the dark. The cover makes a lot of sense after you finish reading the book as all these insects, and peacock, play an important part in the book.
We follow the life of Sharmeen, who after an unexpected tragedy, moves into her Nani’s bungalow. She hates her new life, as her mother and Nani are constantly bickering. Along with this, she is being bullied by classmates at school. Adding to this, the presence of Aziz Bhai starts to become more and more prominent in the house.
However, Sharmeen loves to spend time with her Nani, who tells her folk stories of jinns, shapeshifters, and other creatures, much to the annoyance of Sharmeen’s mother. In a chance encounter, Sharmeen meets a firefly in the garden. This firefly turns out to be a jinn and so they both strike up an unlikely friendship.
It is this firefly that speaks to Sharmeen about what’s really going on in the house. He tells her all the secrets, who’s plotting what, and realities of people’s intentions. This alarms Sharmeens and it is then up to her to save the lives of the adults in the house. Is the firefly using Sharmeen? Can Sharmeen trust the Jinn? Is Sharmeen a pawn in the larger scheme of things? This and other mysteries are resolved by the end of the book.
Real or Fantasy
I had expected the novel to be a realistic portrayal of jinns and other creatures. However, the book dives into a more fantastical territory and so it becomes a magical fantasy book. Reading this book reminded me of the time when my own grandmother would share stories of jinns and witches late into the night. I would be so fascinated and intrigued by her stories.
A Firefly in the Dark will not scare you, nor will it creep you out, merely because it’s a fantasy based novel. But it will surely make you nostalgic as you will be reminded of your own grandmother sharing such stories.
To Read or Not to Read
The book is fairly easy to read, and pretty much straightforward. There are some interesting bits and pieces regarding the world of jinns and how they function in the human world. But other than that, it’s a very predictable read and I figured out the climax pretty early.
If you have time to spare, and can quickly read through, then go for it. I was able to read through the book over one night. It was a fun read, and I enjoyed it for what’s its worth. But is it a masterpiece? Not really.