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Portrait Of Pakistan In Elegant, Braided Stories

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

It is a truth seldom acknowledged that our vast and multifarious world can never be contained by a novel, however fat, rich and ambitious. The format that comes closest to capturing the sheer variety of human life may be the linked story collection, which offers the continuity and recurring characters of a novel, but allows for frequent and abrupt switches in tone, perspective, even genre.

Take Daniyal Mueenuddin's superb first book, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. In just under 250 pages, eight braided tales — tightly compressed sagas of characters ranging from lowly hut-dwellers to members of the pampered elite — provide a riveting wide-angle portrait of contemporary Pakistan, a culture that most Americans know only glancingly from newspaper headlines and A Mighty Heart.

Mueenuddin's characters orbit around the household of the wealthy Harouni family, a once powerful clan in somewhat inevitable decline as the soft, younger Harounis become more interested in European fashions and American girlfriends than husbanding the ancestral fortune. Not that their servants know, care or would behave differently, so immersed are they in their own dramas. In the exquisitely condensed "Saleema," a doleful maid falls improbably in love with an elderly butler, bears a child, glimpses grace, then drifts into a squalid life of drug addiction. In "Provide, Provide," the Harounis' crafty business manager shrewdly profits from the decline of the family fortune, but remains utterly incapable of managing his complicated personal life.

The Harounis and their ilk first appear as aloof background figures in the narratives of such servants, more like shadowy gods than human beings. But they, too, are brought to full, flawed life in the chilly, astute tales of the volume's second half.

The longest story in the book, "Lily," recounts the courtship and marriage of a hedonistic young beauty longing for a wholesome life that she's utterly incapable of sustaining. Bored and swilling vodka tonics at her new husband's rural estate, she's Emma Bovary crossed with a Dorothy Parker malcontent — with a few appalling (and appealing) quirks of her own. Vain, pampered Lily couldn't be more different from downtrodden Saleema, but their stories intertwine gracefully in Mueenuddin's vibrant tapestry.

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Jennifer Reese