Seven by Farzana Doctor is an #OwnVoices Indian fiction literature novel about a woman named Sharifa who travels to India with her husband with the hopes of learning more about her great-great-grandfather who was an immensely successful businessman and a philanthropist. During her research, however, instead of discovering a tale of rags-to-riches, Sharifa learns that her grandfather had four wives, all of whom had been omitted from the family’s lore. As she becomes more and more engrossed in the enigma surrounding these women, Sharifa also becomes entangled in a powerful familial debate regarding khatna—an age-old ritual of female genital cutting, one that shall force her to face her own reality and choose a side.
One of the most intriguing characteristics about Seven is the subject matter of female genital cutting (FGC) as it is one that I have never seen discussed in literature before. My own personal knowledge of this ritual is extremely limited and for all intents and purposes, it has always been a topic that has existed within my own cultural circles, but one that is never openly discussed. While I was curious to learn more about FGC, I was wary of the sensitivity with which it would be broached in the book. Ms Doctor not only discusses this vital issue with accessibility and evocativeness, she also does so with great care and consideration, which is what truly makes Seven such an incredible title.
The writing style is simple and rather straight-forward, making it easy to get utterly consumed within the pages, more so when the emotions surrounding the subject matter are portrayed with authenticity and thoughtfulness. Each side of the debate is given attention and respect, and provides an insightful, educative, and captivating reading experience. The tone while discussing the roots of these rituals and why some family members still believe in the practise is never spiteful or accusatory, which is an incredibly challenging feat given the nature of this matter. Her exposition is careful and considerate from beginning to end, even when it leans a bit more towards one side versus the other.
The superb use of emotions to illustrate the tensions within Sharifa’s family as they discuss this practise draws the reader further into the complexities of olden traditional Indian culture that most would consider to be highly outdated. There are layers of complexities that go beyond simple right and wrong that create a plethora of reactions and responses as the story unfolds, making the book practically impossible to put down.
The focus on FGC plays parallel to some of the other issues that Sharifa is battling in Seven and that helps to formulate an even more elaborate narrative filled with multi-dimensional themes on gender roles (particularly where sex is concerned), self-acceptance, the intricacies of cultural identity, marriage, female relationships, and much more. Sharifa’s husband, Murtuza, was a pleasant surprise whilst reading. He was a compassionate and understanding man who always valued his wife’s thoughts and feelings, highlighting an equity in their marriage that is rarely depicted in books showcasing more culturally inflexible gender-centric functions in South Asian communities, especially with respect to her inner turmoil regarding her sexuality and mental fortitude.
While Seven is not an easy book to read, it is vastly important, and I highly recommend it to readers that are searching for a unique story with fallibly relatable characters. With writing that is supported via excellent research, a respectful approach to an intensely delicate subject matter, a sensitive exhibition of sex and romance amid rigid Indian traditions and gender roles, and beautifully sincere use of emotions, there is very little within these pages that shall disappoint.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Dundurn Press.