The earnest grandeur of Romantic poets such as John Keats or William Wordsworth may have fallen out of fashion, but their legacy perseveres. In Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, their words help shape the lives of two strikingly dissimilar Tamil Muslim sisters who grow up in Chennai, India. Seema becomes a political activist in San Francisco; Tahera, an orthodox Muslim doctor, married with two children in Irvine, Texas. Ahmed’s prose is full of close-up particulars, but the novel’s sensibility is operatic and transcendent and searching.
Ahmed’s book unfolds during the Obama years; Seema works as a consultant on Kamala Harris’s campaign for California attorney general. A lesbian, she is pregnant with the soon-to-be-born Ishraaq, who narrates the novel from the womb. It’s an audacious choice, but Radiant Fugitives is an audacious novel, revealing in its opening pages that Seema has died in a Bay Area emergency ward while her estranged ex-husband, Bill, waits with her ailing mother, Nafeesa. After two decades during which she barely saw Seema because of her husband’s homophobia, Nafeesa has traveled from Chennai to San Francisco, fueled by remorse.
Ishraaq is a keen observer of his mother’s life, and of the threads and complications of family. Certain passages are addressed directly to his grandmother, and he astutely describes Tahera’s roiling, uncomfortable feelings—“unexpected, almost a betrayal”—upon arriving in California to visit her sister and their mother after not having seen them together for almost 16 years. When Seema recalls their shared childhood with references to Keats, Tahera finds herself regretful. Neither is Seema immune from anxiety about Tahera’s decision to move deeper into faith.
Fascinatingly—and fittingly in a book that alludes so often to poetry—these three women are defined in part by their relationships to language. Seema speaks freely; Tahera, less so, until she is overwhelmed, in which case she says too much. In contrast to her daughters, Nafeesa feels uncertain about how to express herself. When she observes the makeshift family Seema has built in San Francisco, Nafeesa’s way of thanking these friends for supporting her daughter is to cook for them.
The novel pulls American politics to its plot—the rises of Harris, Gavin Newsom, and Obama are part of the narrative—but what’s most memorable is Ahmed’s emotional discernment, his broader questions about the human condition. What is this life we’re living? Who are we in this place together? His characters’ motivations are not fixed but fluctuate with social tides. Seema’s interest in Bill, for instance, appears to be compelled by her desire for political change. Her disaffection with him, however, may grow from a new romantic interest: an energetic, idealistic Indian American fundraiser who reminds her of who she used to be.
Radiant Fugitives is thinky, but it doesn’t feel constructed so much as miraculously found. Its characters represent a number of Bay Area types, yet they are also beautifully specific. A vivid coda cycles quickly through brief impressions from the perspectives of Seema’s father; Tahera’s husband, who serves as right-hand man to an imam; Keats, on a ship bound for Italy; Bill’s dead father; Obama; and others. The narration highlights a collective desire for something beyond the tangible:
We can never comprehend the full extent of the world and the life that surrounds us, even with the most powerful telescopes and microscopes that science can invent.… Even with the things that we can perceive readily, we have become so accustomed to them that we can no longer see them clearly. The best we can hope for is that someone lifts from our eyes—at least for a moment—the fog of familiarity that obscures from us the wonder of our being.
Fog is a recurring motif; its sensuousness makes the world seem deeper, but it also places us in San Francisco. Symbolic of the separation between existence and nonexistence, between what happens before we are born and our afterlives, fog brings to mind Keats’s ode “To Autumn”—which begins with the phrase “Season of mists”—and echoes the poem’s interest in the abundance of harvest before winter. Ahmed’s novel fulfills that ambitious promise.
Although kaleidoscopic and contemporary, Radiant Fugitives also hearkens back to more traditional novels in which subtle, complex details are a source of delight, rather than something to be pared away to render meaning transparent. Rich in births, families, dinners, poetry, coming out, protests, vigils, organizing, medical catastrophe, mysticism, references to the Quran, and regional detail, it yearns for spiritual understanding.
Fugitive comes from the Latin fugitīvus, which means “quick to disappear; fleeing.” The etymology of the word bears on the novel’s insights about human life. Here is our gossamer mortality, this astonishing debut says. Here we are, eluding one another as we try to guard the inner universes of our identities.
Look how frighteningly brief our time on earth is: attend to its beauty; attend to one another.•