Estranged sisters are drawn back together when their mother becomes gravely ill in Once a Stranger, the debut novel from Zoya Patel; but as Laila and Ayat discuss the prospect of a reunion, their biggest concern is that their mother, Khadija is not going to be as willing and able to forgive her youngest daughter, before it’s too late.
Shifting back and forth between the past (before) and the present (now), Patel tells the story of three distinctly different migrant women of Muslim-Indian background, from the perspective of Ayat, who has broken with tradition and betrayed the family by refusing an arranged marriage – unlike her sister.
Now living in another city with her boyfriend Harry, Ayat hasn’t spoken to her mother and sister in six years and is a totally different person to who they remember. Reading Laila’s first email, she feels immediately guilty about the rift between them and is compelled to make amends, but she also struggles with memories of how they treated her; of growing up and trying to fit in; of her father’s sudden death; and her mother’s hardness that followed.
As the daughter of migrants, I can relate to Ayat’s experience of growing up in Australia and am fascinated by stories of siblings with almost identical upbringings who turn out so differently. Life and identity are not linear experiences, you’re constantly shifting between holding onto traditions and trying to fit in – like a split personality. While the see-sawing helps to weave and slowly reveal the complexity and layers of the story; I think it also serves to demonstrate this feeling of being caught between two worlds – the old and the new.
The build up towards the first meeting is gripping but goes for a while, only to culminate in an unsurprising anti-climax where Khadija refuses to even look at Ayat. By this point, however, the reader will be invested in finding out what happens to the three characters; Ayat as the courageous protagonist trying to carve out a new life for herself, Khadija as the villain, stubbornly holding on to the past and her pride, and Laila the ‘good daughter,’ caught in the middle and torn between loyalty and a yearning for peace.
An enjoyable and accessible read, Patel’s novel shines a light on the female migrant experience, exploring themes of identity and belonging, and loss and grief – not only the loss of the people we love, but the places and traditions we cling to like a life-raft. In the face of impending loss, Ayat, Khadija and Laila do find a way to put their differences aside, and although there’s no happily-ever-after; Once a Stranger reminds us that love truly can conquer all.
Once a stranger, by Zoya Patel
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publication date: 1 March 2023