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At the age of 23 young Asif has the weight of the world on his shoulders. The sudden and unexpected death of his mother forces him, as the eldest sibling, to give up his degree at Cambridge and return home to look after his youngest sister Yasmin, who has Aspergers syndrome. Asif also has another sister, Lila, who found family life too stressful and has chosen to live away from the family and only sees them occasionally. Yasmin is in her final year at school studying for her A'levels when a TV company approaches the school and asks to make a documentary about her and how she sees the world. As Asif and Lila consider this it forces them to reflect on their lives so far, their childhood and their feelings towards Yasmin, who has had an enormous impact on their upbringing.
Each chapter is told through the eyes of one of the characters. We learn about Asif and Yasmin's early childhood and their memories of life before Yasmin was born. I found the differences between the siblings to be quite interesting. Growing up Asif was in some ways more accepting of Yasmin's condition and more tolerant of her and her behaviour. As the eldest he feels a sense of duty and responsibility towards Yasmin.
Lila, on the other hand has always had difficulty in understanding Yasmin and why her mother treated her differently or more favourably. In many ways Lila resents Yasmin and doesn't mind making her feelings known. In contrast to Asif, Lila is a bit of a drifter, moving from one job to another and one relationship to another without really committing to anything. This lack of direction and purpose is something that Lila blames on her upbringing and Yasmin in particular. Asif on the other hand does feel some resentment, at what he's had to give up, and the fact that he and Lila were always competing with Yasmin for their mother's attention, but this is twinged with guilt for feeling that way. He realises that life will never be the same and that now that his mother is gone he has to look after Yasmin for the rest of their lives.
I found the characters to be very well written and larger than life. I immediately felt an affinity towards Asif, perhaps because I am also the eldest in my family, and also have a sibling with learning difficulties who demands a lot of attention from my parents. For this reason I could understand the sense of responsibility he feels towards his family and also perhaps the resentment they feel.
Lila is someone I initially found quite annoying, particularly her attitude towards Yasmin. She makes her feelings for Yasmin clear and often wishes Yasmin were dead so that she and Asif could get on with their lives. She is however torn by these feelings and is plagued by guilt for thinking in this way. I found her initially to be quite self-centred and selfish and I didn't like the fact that she too didn't take some responsibility for Yasmin's care, instead letting Asif carry the burden alone. As I got to know her character more I could understand why she was the way she was. It was interesting then to see her re-evaluate her relationships with her siblings when she meets Henry, a blind researcher who is working on Yasmin's documentary. As their friendship blossoms Lila is forced to face up to her predjudices about disability and her attitude towards Yasmin.
Although Yasmin is the focus of the story she is not really a main character. Yasmin is in a world of her own, one dominated by order and routine, and she has no idea of the resentment she has caused her siblings. I found her character to be extremely well written, with great sensitivity and it gave me an interesting insight into Yasmin's world. I found the matter-of-fact and emotionless way in which Yasmin narrates to be how I would expect a person with Aspergers to speak.
Whilst I wouldn't call the book a page-turner the author did a great job of immersing the reader in the family's world. The characters were so well written and I found myself caring about what happened to them and wanted to know how things would pan out for them. The writing style was uncomplicated and there were moments in the book where I wanted to laugh out loud and others that were deeply moving. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and can't fault it. I will certainly be looking out for more of Roopa Farooki's work in the future.
"My name is Yasmin Murphy, and I don't remember very much about the morning that my mum died, which is odd, as normally I remember everything."
The Way Things Look to Me is the story of Yasmin and her brother and sister, Asif and Lila, each of whose life is completely changed by the death of their widowed mother. Life wasn't easy before she died and their childhoods were already far from 'standard' because everything revolved around the needs of Yasmin. If Yasmin didn't like something, then the Murphy children didn't get to do it - after all, where was the fun in going out to have fun and finding Yasmin spoiling it for the others?
Yasmin's not joking when she says she has an amazing memory. She has Asperger's Syndrome, a high performing form of autism and she can tell you exactly what she (and you) were wearing on any day, even down to how many buttons were done up on your shirt. She sees music in colours and is tormented by the questions that psychologists keep asking her ; "Is she happy?" and "Does she have hope for the future?". She says yes to both questions because she's learned that's what they expect - but is it really true? What is hope and what is happiness?
Yasmin is 19, attending a good local school and projected to walk her A levels without much effort thanks to that phenomenal memory. But life has a way of balancing the blessings with the disadvantages. Yasmin has very limited social skills and has to remind herself to count - Mississippi One, Mississippi Two - when trying to maintain eye contact. She loves routine and structure, panics about any kind of change, and her behaviour has been a bind for her family since she was a toddler. Early in the book she announces that a film company wants to make a documentary about her life and sees this as an opportunity to show the 'non-NT' (non-neurotypical) world what it's like to be Yasmin.
Asif Declan Kalil Murphy is Yasmin's big brother and her primary carer. He was a talented and bright student forced to cut short his Cambridge education by his mother's death. At 23, life isn't what he expected and he can't see it getting better. It's not easy to have a normal social life when you're preoccupied with maintaining a stable and routine environment for your sister. He loves her, he wants the best for her, but can he find space in his life to be his own person, let alone a potential partner for somebody else? Will any woman - let alone the gorgeous older woman on whom he has a massive crush at the City accountancy firm where he works - ever want a man with quite so much baggage?
If Asif is the 'good boy' then his sister Lila is firmly cast in the role of the 'bad girl'. Lila is tortured by self-doubt and by extreme eczema which has her spending hours in the bath, scraping, scrubbing, exfoliating and emolliating every day. From the outside she's polished, smart, attractive, but she's constantly fighting her perceived inner ugliness. Her resentment of Yasmin is strong and often verbally expressed. She's moved out of the family home and has been engaging in relationships with either the wrong sort of man (shagging the boss in the store cupboard) or men who are little more than accessories or status symbols (for example the gorgeous Wesley, wealthy, well-dressed and sophisticated).
Lila is a self-harmer, fighting her inner demons with a craft knife and rejecting her little sister as the 'Rain Girl'. She's not convinced that Yasmin's really got Asperger's, after all, if she's doing SO well, as the doctors keep saying, maybe there's not really anything wrong with her. Maybe Yasmin has destroyed her siblings' childhood for nothing more than just being a really demanding and unpleasant child.
When Lila meets Henry, the blind researcher working on Yasmin's documentary, can she put aside her prejudices about disability and appearances and learn to love?
~The Way Things Looked to Me as a Reader~
It looked very good indeed - in short, I loved this book. It wasn't a surprise since I'd adored Farooki's first book, Bitter Sweets, so I knew what to expect. Each of the three characters is multi-dimensional and written with great sensitivity and insight. By turns we're confronted with very good reasons why each might resent the others but reassured by the familial love that binds them almost against their wishes and instincts. In Asif we have the self-sacrificing father figure who puts others first, in his sister Lila we've the selfish nasty drifter and in Yasmin herself we have the logical, analytical and entirely unemotional counterpoint to the other two.
For both the older siblings, Yasmin is a major constraint on the way they'd ideally like to live their lives but when push comes to shove - and we as observers see it moving inexorably towards a potential tragedy - we're left to wonder whether blood will prove yet again to be thicker than water.
The small cast of supporting characters are also well painted. Lin Mei, the young mother and sexy older woman who captivates Asif and Henry the blind documentary maker in love with loud-mouthed Lila are both adorable characters who we can't help but be cheering on as they weave their lives into the web of the Murphy family. It could so easily all go very wrong but we have to trust Farooki to take care of her characters.
~Mostly or Wholly Irrelevant~
One of the most refreshing and unexpected aspects of the book is the way in which race and religion are treated, as Yasmin would say as "mostly or wholly irrelevant" (her term for a lot of things that fall outside her zone of interest. We are dangled the carrot of a complex family background - an Irish father, a mother from an undisclosed place on the Indian sub-continent (Pakistan, Bangladesh, India - who knows?) - but other than a few paragraphs about how hard it is to live with a name like Asif Declan Kalil Murphy, the skeleton of intrigue about how their parents met and came to marry or what conflicts their marriage might have caused within their families, goes entirely unfleshed with any detail. Relatives on either side are conspicuously absent and we're left perhaps to fill in the blanks for ourselves.
Similarly the issue of their mother's death is never resolved. I expected throughout that as the plot moved back and forth between present and past, the truth of what happened would be revealed, and yet that never happened. I still don't know how or why their mother died - and it's a challenge to recognise that yet again, it's 'mostly or wholly irrelevant' to what happens in the book.
The book is well paced with the coverage finely balanced between the three characters. There is no central hero or heroine - it's a very egalitarian piece. Each has their needs, their dreams and their demons, yet each is a realistic 'warts and all' person who is sometimes hard to love or respect and yet they still get under the skin of the reader. I was left wanting a follow up, another chapter in the lives of the Murphys to take me a few years further into their lives. I don't think you can ask for a better indication of how much I came to care about these three damaged young people.
Roopa Farooki was born in Lahore, Pakistan, moved to London at the age of 7 months and was brought up in the UK. She reveals at the end of the book that Lila's description of living with eczema in the book is based on her own personal experience. She's also an ambassador for the relationship counselling service Relate so she must be a bit of an expert on family breakdown and mediation. Both aspects of her life add colour to her writing.
Farooki's first book - Bitter Sweets - was one of the most compelling page-turners I've ever read which wove together Asia and the UK in a complex family saga of deception and loyalty. I missed her second book - Corner Shop - but grabbed the third 'The Way Things Look to Me' as soon as it popped up on my Amazon suggestions list. The Times newspaper voted it one of their top 50 paperbacks of 2009 and it has been long listed for the 2010 Orange Prize. From my perspective, she's definitely an author well worth hunting down. If you want the 'immigrant experience' novel, try Bitter Sweets, or if that doesn't interest you, then The Way Things Look to Me, might be a better choice.