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Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion

Review

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion

From award-winning author Bushra Rehman comes ROSES, IN THE MOUTH OF A LION, a vivid, character-driven novel set in a Muslim-American community in 1980s Queens.

From the moment Paul Simon sang “Goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona. Seeing me and Julio down by the schoolyard,” Corona, Queens, has made a bit of a name for itself. But no one knows Corona --- the real Corona --- like Razia and her friends, Saima and Lucy, each a member of an immigrant community in the small Queens neighborhood nestled under the number 7 train between Junction Boulevard and 111th Street.

Once home to mostly Italian families, Corona has expanded to welcome (or at least house) Pakistani families who have formed close-knit bonds as they navigate the vagaries of American life and culture together. While Razia’s parents and those of her friends still hold tight to their motherland over staticky calls and gossip, the children alone forge ahead as first-generation Americans, straddling the line between tradition and assimilation --- all while becoming teenage girls and young women facing the idiosyncrasies and dangers of life as a female.

"ROSES, IN THE MOUTH OF A LION is a unique and refreshing coming-of-age story that meets its unforgettable protagonist at the intersection of faith, feminism and sexuality."

When we meet Razia, she and her friends are like all other little girls: they coo at kittens, delight in sugary treats and sneak around their mothers, hoping for slumber parties and an endless stream of five-more-minutes. But as American as they seem to their mothers and aunties, they are still safely ensconced in the bubble of their tight-knit community. The dangers lurking in alleyways and the microaggressions of their peers are only beginning to become familiar to them, easily ignored in favor of new records or sparkly clothes.

Their mothers are devout, but they are also aware of the freedoms that the girls have access to in America. And while they encourage them to read the Quran, they also turn a blind eye when their daughters engage in small rebellions. But as Razia and her friends grow up, their rebellions become larger, and they find themselves caught between the hold of tradition and the allure of new identities, the safety of their communities and the exciting draw of branching out.

As Razia’s friend group disbands and reforms, she loses Saima to a disagreement between their families and soon takes up with a new girl, Taslima, as a teen. Together they push the limits of their clothing choices, musical tastes and small world in Corona, hanging out in neighborhoods where their aunties can’t observe them. ROSES, IN THE MOUTH OF A LION does not follow an exact plot but rather unfolds as a series of vignettes and interconnected short stories as Rehman chronicles Razia’s coming of age. From first crushes (an appropriately named Julio, no less!) to first Christmases, disastrous family gatherings, cockroach bombs and Goodwill miniskirts, Rehman invites readers to watch as Razia grows up and starts to test the boundaries of her devout, sheltered upbringing.

One thing immediately becomes clear: Razia and her peers are not like their parents who grew up in Pakistan, where gardens ran wild and families lived intergenerationally. Instead these girls are more independent, hardened by the poverty and struggle to survive that almost all first-generation immigrants face when they attempt to realize the American dream. As Razia attends prestigious Stuyvesant High School and meets a girl, Angela, who interests her like no one else has, the dissonance between her family’s traditions and her attempts to forge her own identity approaches a dangerous confrontation. She will have to choose the future that she wants, even if it means giving up her community.

ROSES, IN THE MOUTH OF A LION unfolds at a breakneck pace. Fortunately, Rehman’s characters are so real and well-drawn that the simple act of spending time with them and learning about their likes, dislikes and the dynamics of their relationships made the book easy to fall into. Before long, I felt like I could fill in the blanks between each chapter. As a novel centered on female friendships and the budding of queer relationships, it was deceptively simple. Until it wasn’t.

Although Razia and her friends felt as familiar to me as my own friends, Rehman doesn’t rely on predictability or familiarity to push her characters into the more difficult decisions they face. She is careful and precise when it comes to Razia’s questioning of her identity and community. Every word is chosen for its power, and she never defaults to the simple questions when the harder ones are available. But even more impactfully, she allows room for Razia, her friends and her family to exist in the gray areas --- being faithful without being devout; being true to oneself without ignoring one’s history; setting course for a new life while holding on to the community that raised one.

This is a terrifically balanced novel that reconciles so many things: ’80s music and Bollywood; legacy and newness; heritage and faith, all while presenting a fierce and memorable coming-of-age story that will resonate with women everywhere, of every culture.

Perfect for readers of Dana Czapnik’s THE FALCONER and Daphne Palasi Andreades’ BROWN GIRLS, ROSES, IN THE MOUTH OF A LION is a unique and refreshing coming-of-age story that meets its unforgettable protagonist at the intersection of faith, feminism and sexuality.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on December 17, 2022

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion
by Bushra Rehman

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250834783
  • ISBN-13: 9781250834782