Book review: The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar

Book review: The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar

reviewed by Frances Churchward.

The Pact We Made is the author’s first novel . The story is told by Dahlia, the younger daughter of  well-off Kuwaiti parents. Dahlia is approaching her thirtieth birthday and her mother is anxious that she should marry as she fears that Dahlia is in danger of being left permanently on the shelf.  To this end, her mother regularly introduces her to eligible young men, along with their mothers as is the custom. Dhalia’s older sister has fulfilled the cultural expectations and married, as have Dahlia’s two close female friends. However, it is clear from almost the start of the novel that Dahlia has suffered a traumatic event during her formative period and, as a result, is very unsure about what she wants in her life. Much to her mother’s increasing frustration, Dahlia shows no interest in the young men to whom she is introduced. Her father is less concerned about the need for her to marry but will not support Dahlia in her wish to travel abroad in order to study. He is adamant that she should remain living at home.

Dahlia has a job in finance which she does not enjoy and her main interest in life is art, specifically at this point in her life, “The Caprices by Goya” to the extent of the sketches being a near obsession. She thinks that there is a similarity between the 18th century of Goya’s Europe and the 21st century of Asia, including the “rationality infected by persistent superstitions”. Dahlia feels at odds with the world and that her life is not her own; she has, in the past, occasionally resorted to self harm.

This novel is not a page turner. It is a slow and quite gentle unfolding of a story about a young woman who is suffering the mental repercussions of a traumatic event in her earlier life. This event, of which her parents are fully aware, has never been properly addressed due to cultural expectations relating to marriageability. Along the way, the reader learns much about the lives of young women in modern Kuwait. Many aspects sound similar to life in the western world as Dahlia makes reference to parties, fashion, farmers’ markets and exhibitions. However, it is also evident that, for young women in Kuwait, in order to enjoy the apparent freedoms, much lying to their parents is required. It is also apparent that unmarried daughters are not considered to be adults until they are married and, therefore, are not able to make any real decisions about their lives.

There is sadness in this story. Dahlia feels stifled by her parents expectations and is desperately seeking a way to escape from her life and start anew. The reader makes the journey towards possible freedom along with Dahlia and, reading the story through the eyes of someone who is not bound by cultural and religious traditions, I found myself fervently wishing for her to take action. This is a thoughtful and, ultimately, satisfying book which I recommend to anyone who wants a quiet contemplative read rather than a book packed with action.

Published by The Borough Press. Available from good bookshops, including October Books in Portswood, Southampton.