Coming-of-age novel overflows with humor, heartache, and honesty

A Pakistani American girl narrates her life in “Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion,” a novel that touches on a Muslim family, their community, and difficult choices. 

"Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion: A Novel," by Bushra Rehman, Flatiron Books, 288 pp.

Midway through “Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion,” Razia, a Pakistani American living in Queens, New York, takes her new friend Taslima to visit a lion down the road. Staring into his dark eyes, Razia sees “boredom, longing, hunger” as the golden creature paces his alley enclosure. “I hate to break it to you,” laughs Taslima, “but that dog is not a lion.” 

The metaphor of a glorious, trapped being eyeballing the world stalks and shapes this captivating novel, the first from writer Bushra Rehman. As Razia navigates the whirl of growing up and coming out across cultures and communities, her first-person narrative vibrates with humor, heartache, pathos, and honesty. 

It’s summer 1985 and sixth grade looms. Razia and her best friends Saima, Lucy, and the bullying Shahnaaz roam between houses in Corona, a Pakistani enclave where money is tight and the new masjid sits shoulder-to-shoulder with an Episcopal church and a Kingdom Hall. “Our neighborhood was a hand-me-down from the Italians,” Razia describes. Tan-brick houses crowd the train tracks; unruly grapevines curl over fences where roses and hydrangeas once bloomed.

As the heat pounds, the girls fend off boredom with the slouchy aimlessness that leads to scrapes and escapes. Desperate for sweets, they search for change in the cushions of backyard sofas; they also try out Mayor Koch’s newly announced recycling program despite their parents’ proud refusal to collect cans. In both instances, low-key mayhem ensues, and the girls’ emotional responses feel both emotionally accurate and refreshingly specific. 

Razia, her family, and most of her friends are devout Muslims. Her mother teaches Quran to the neighborhood kids, just as her mother did back in Pakistan, while Razia’s many aunties organize religious gatherings filled with quiet study and bountiful food. Eid is celebrated so joyfully that “the laws of gravity were suspended.” A willing participant in prayers and traditions, Razia values her faith even as she watches her mother wield it like a cudgel to keep what she considers iffy Western ways at bay.

Assessing – and puzzling over – the world around her is Razia’s default mode; to a lesser extent it’s that of her extended immigrant family as well. Her father runs Corona Halal Meats, a destination for locals not only to shop but to sip chai and chew over the strange land they now call home and the different religions that surround them. For example, a regular customer to the shop, a gas station mechanic, tells Razia’s father “The Yehovah’s Witnesses came to the Garage!” A second visitor asks, “Why are they called that? Did they witness something?” In another example, to demonstrate his grasp of Christianity, Razia’s father asserts, “Easter is when Jesus goes upstate.” One man asks, “Upstate, how? On the bus?” After Razia’s father clarifies by pointing to the sky, the third man asks, “But what do eggs have to do with it?” Such moments of earnest questioning, bemused bewilderment, and cross-cultural interpretation provide some of the book’s best moments.

Razia’s days unfold under the sharp gaze of her mother, a stern and disapproving presence who incessantly hounds, warns, and worries, particularly as Razia nears puberty. Yet Rehman avoids the trappings of a one-dimensional, cliched character by sprinkling in moments of individuality – her mother unselfconsciously climbing a cherry tree, or gently checking Razia’s hair for lice. 

From that first summer of 1985 through 1989, the novel tracks Razia’s growth into a teenager bursting with questions, chafing at her parents’ strict rules, and maneuvering through both the loss of friendships and the nervous excitement of first love. The path is bumpy: Razia must deal with ethnic stereotypes and blatant racism, as well as her community’s visible discomfort with her emerging sexual identity. All these issues threaten to overwhelm the simple delights of browsing the racks at Goodwill and enjoying games with her baby sister.

Details from popstar George Michael and the American Top 40 to more sober subjects like the AIDS crisis lodge the novel in its late ‘80s timeframe. New York City also comes alive, most notably when Razia starts attending the acclaimed Stuyvesant school in the East Village “where punks walked around like zebras in the wild.” But it’s Rehman’s language, a brew of poetic observations and blunt asides, that dazzles the brightest, adding depth and color to Razia’s wrangling with faith, identity, and family.  

Moments of brutality, although they are mercifully brief, may put this book out of bounds for some readers. But those who stay the course will discover that even Razia’s mother has a softer side. 

“We were stepping out of our husks, our wings dragging behind us,” observes Razia about the fitful launch into adolescence. It’s a stepping out rife with moments of beauty and strength, frustration and surprise, thanks to Rehman’s formidable skills.

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