In the Company of Strangers is the debut novel from Awais Khan. It takes us inside the elite classes of Pakistani society and exposes the hypocrisy and double-standards of Pakistani life, especially from the perspective of the women of that country. Mona, a forty-one-year-old Socialite in Lahore has been married to construction magnate, Bilal for over twenty years, who although he loves her dearly is a typically conservative, male Muslim Pakistani who firmly believes a woman’s place is in the home, demure, quiet and always ready to service her man whenever he requires it. If necessary, Bilal will reinforce his dominance with physical violence, although, of course there is no problem with Bilal having a string of girlfriends and affairs. Mona has everything materially she could ever wish for but she lacks the one thing she needs more than anything - love. With her children grown and studying in Canada, Mona struggles with the meaningless circuit of gossiping, backstabbing, society women. When she meets Ali, an aspiring young, male model, whose desire to help his mother and especially his brother, who lost his leg in a terrorist bombing now has him floating on the edges of the terrorist’s threat, their mutual attraction is undeniable. When her best friend during her student days, Meera, the successful owner of a modeling agency, returns to town, Mona finally feels emboldened to try to break free from her gilded prison.
In the Company of Strangers is an incredibly powerful story of love and loss in a country trying to come to terms with the juxtaposition of twenty-first century morality and conservative Muslim lore and law. Mona, as a character, was a bold effort, especially on debut, from author Awais Khan. He manages to successfully capture the many sides of this complicated character and the difficult, near impossible position she finds herself in. The author’s ability to capture the raw emotion of the characters and the horror of the terrorist’s actions is admirable and a credit to his writing abilities. For those of us who live outside of Pakistan he was able to provide a clear insight into the workings of a predominantly Muslim country and their social contracts, such as marriage. As I social commentary on modern-day Pakistan I was enthralled and as a story of love, loss and hope, I was captivated. Khan clearly has real ability and by concentrating for his debut novel on something he clearly knew, understood and had probably lived he was able to bring real urgency and believability to his work. Full of emotion and action, this is a thoroughly readable story that I can highly recommend. I look forward to more work from this clearly highly talented author.