The Way Things Look to Me

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The Way Things Look to Me By Roopa Farooki“My name is Yasmin Murphy, and I don’t remember very much about the morning that my mum died, which is odd, as normally I remember everything.”

The Way Things Look to Me is the story of Yasmin and her brother and sister, Asif and Lila, each of whose life is completely changed by the death of their previously widowed mother. Life wasn’t easy before she died and their childhoods were already far from ‘standard’ because everything revolving around the needs of Yasmin. If Yasmin didn’t like something, then the Murphy children didn’t get to do it – after all, where was the fun in going out to have fun and finding Yasmin spoiling it for the others?

Yasmin

Yasmin’s not joking when she says she has an amazing memory. She has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high performing form of autism and she can tell you exactly what she (and you) were wearing on any day, even down to how many buttons were done up on your shirt. She sees music in colours and is tormented by the questions that psychologists keep asking her ; “Is she happy?” and “Does she have hope for the future”. She says yes to both questions because she’s learned that’s what they expect – but is it really true? What is hope and what is happiness.

Yasmin is 19, attending a good local school and projected to walk her A levels without much effort thanks to that phenomenal memory. But life has a way of balancing the blessings with the disadvantages. Yasmin has very limited social skills and has to remind herself to count – Mississippi One, Mississippi Two – when trying to maintain eye contact. She loves routine and structure, panics about any kind of change, and her behaviour has been a bind for her family since she was a toddler. Early in the book she announces that a film company wants to make a documentary about her life and sees this as an opportunity to show the ‘non-NT’ (non-neurotypical) world what it’s like to be Yasmin.

Asif

Asif Declan Kalil Murphy is Yasmin’s big brother and primary carer. He was a talented and bright student forced to cut short his Cambridge education by his mother’s death. At 23, life isn’t what he expected and he can’t see it getting better. It’s not easy to have a normal social life when you’re preoccupied with maintaining a stable and routine environment for your sister. He loves her, he wants the best for her, but can he find space in his life to be his own person, let alone a potential partner? Will any woman – let alone the gorgeous older woman on whom he has a massive crush at the City accountancy firm where he works – ever want a man with quite so much baggage?

Lila

Lila is Yasmin’s sister, tortured by self-doubt and by extreme eczema which has her spending hours in the bath, scraping, scrubbing, exfoliating and emolliating every day. From the outside she’s polished, smart, attractive, but she’s constantly fighting her perceived inner ugliness. Her resentment of Yasmin is strong and often expressed. She’s moved out of the family home and has been engaging in relationships with either the wrong sort of man (shagging the boss in the store cupboard) or men who are little more than accessories or status symbols (for example the gorgeous Wesley, wealthy, well-dressed and sophisticated). Lila is a self-harmer, fighting her inner demons with a craft knife and rejecting her little sister as the ‘Rain Girl’. She’s not convinced that Yasmin’s really got Asperger’s, after all, if she’s doing SO well, as the doctors keep saying, maybe there’s not really anything wrong with her. Maybe Yasmin has destroyed her siblings’ childhood for nothing more than just being a really demanding and unpleasant child. When Lila meets Henry, the blind researcher working on Yasmin’s documentary, can she put aside her prejudices about disability and appearances and learn to love?

The Way Things Look to Me

It looks very good indeed – in short, I loved this book. It wasn’t a surprise since I’d adored Farooki’s first book, Bitter Sweets, so I knew what to expect. Each of the three characters is multi-dimensional and written with great sensitivity and insight. By turns we’re confronted with very good reasons why each might resent the others but reassured by the familial love that binds them almost against their wishes and instincts. In Asif we have the ‘good boy’ who puts others first, in his sister Lila we’ve the selfish ‘bad girl’ and in Yasmin herself we have the logical analytical and entirely unemotional counterpoint to the other two. For both the older siblings, Yasmin is a major constraint on the way they’d prefer to live their lives but when push comes to shove – and we as observers see it moving inexorably towards a potential tragedy – we’re left to wonder whether blood will prove yet again to be thicker than water?

The small cast of supporting characters are also well painted. Lin Mei, the young mother and sexy older woman who captivates Asif and Henry the blind documentary maker in love with loud-mouthed Lila are both adorable characters who we can’t help but be cheering on as they weave their lives into the web of the Murphy family. It could so easily all go very wrong but we have to trust Farooki to take care of her characters.

“I was left wanting a follow up, another chapter in the lives of the Murphys to take me a few years further into their lives.”

One of the most refreshing and unexpected aspects of the book is the way in which race and religion are treated, as Yasmin would say as ‘mostly or wholly irrelevant’. We are dangled the carrot of a complex family background – an Irish father, a mother from an undisclosed place on the Indian sub-continent (Pakistan, Bangladesh, India – who knows?) – but other than a few paragraphs about how hard it is to live with a name like Asif Declan Kalil Murphy, the skeleton of intrigue about how their parents met and came to marry or what conflicts their marriage might have caused within their families, goes entirely unfleshed with any detail. Relatives on either side are conspicuously absent and we’re left perhaps to fill in the blanks for ourselves.

Similarly the issue of their mother’s death is never resolved. I expected throughout that as the plot moved between present and past, the truth of what happened would be revealed, and yet that never happened. I still don’t know how or why their mother died – and it’s a challenge to recognise that yet again, it’s ‘mostly or wholly irrelevant’ to what happens in the book.

The book is well paced with the coverage well balanced between the three characters. There is no central hero or heroine – it’s a very egalitarian piece. Each has their needs, their dreams and their demons, yet each is a realistic ‘warts and all’ person who is sometimes hard to love or respect and yet they still get under the skin of the reader. I was left wanting a follow up, another chapter in the lives of the Murphys to take me a few years further into their lives. I don’t think you can ask for a better indication of how much I came to care about these three damaged young people.

Roopa Farooki

Roopa Farooki was born in Lahore, Pakistan, moved to London at the age of 7 months and was brought up in the UK. She reveals at the end of the book that Lila’s description of living with eczema in the book is based on her own personal experience. She’s also an ambassador for the relationship counselling service, Relate so she must be a bit of an expert on family breakdown and mediation.

Farooki’s first book – Bitter Sweets – was one of the most compelling page-turners I’ve ever read which wove together Asia and the UK in a complex family saga of deception and loyalty. I missed her second book – Corner Shop – but grabbed the third ‘The Way Things Look to Me‘ as soon as it popped up on my Amazon suggestions list. The Times newspaper voted it one of their top 50 paperbacks of 2009 and it has been long listed for the 2010 Orange Prize. From my perspective, she’s definitely an author well worth hunting down. If you want the ‘immigrant experience’ novel, try Bitter Sweets, or if that doesn’t interest you, then The Way Things Look to Me, might be a better choice.


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Way Things Look to Me (The)
by Roopa Farooki

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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