The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain review – what the Bake Off winner did next
This warm-hearted family saga from the Great British Bake Off star will surely sell like hot cakes – but I wish celebrities wouldn’t dominate the bookshelves.
This article titled “The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain review – what the Bake Off winner did next” was written by Jenny Colgan, for The Guardian on Thursday 12th January 2017 11.59 UTC
Somewhere in your town, probably in a chilly corner of your library, if you are still lucky enough to have one, is a child. They are by themselves, bespectacled probably; not wearing the trendiest clothes. And they are reading and reading and filling their head with nothing else but books and words and new worlds. They have a dream; that one day books will be their life. It seems unlikely, but there it is. And it is wonderful.
And somewhere else in your town, in a kitchen that is perhaps a little too small, there is another child. And this child is frowning furiously at a recipe book and getting under everyone’s feet and they are cooking and cooking and putting flavours together and hoping things work out. They have a dream, too; that one day food will be their life. And it is also wonderful.
Nadiya Hussain , the winner of 2015’s The Great British Bake Off, has achieved that dream, and she is amazing. But I am here to stick up for the other kid, because those kids are the writers. Nothing against baking, by the way. I love to bake; I’m not even that bad at it. I am also under absolutely no illusion that I would be allowed to compete in the GBBO final while someone else did the tricky bits in the wings.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon, celebrities turning up out of the blue with novels what they have most definitely wrote. Maybe it’s particularly upsetting me this time because I’m a fan. Hussain is just so brimful of talent; of happiness and grace and skill. From a traditional Muslim background, she grew up in Luton and ended up being universally loved and baking for the Queen. Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?
What’s the book like? It’s perfectly competent, as well it should be, as the “helper or “consultant” or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days is the highly talented Ayisha Malik, author of the funny and sparky Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, a smart and acerbic romcom about a young woman writing a book on Muslim dating.
In The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters there are four sisters: a caring homebody Meg-from-Little Women type in Farah; a housebound fragile Beth in Fatima; a free-spirited artistic Jo in Bubblee; and a troublesome mischievous youngest Amy in Mae. I was hoping for insights into a culture I don’t understand as well as I’d like, but the main thrust, overall, is that big noisy religious families are all more or less the same, which, while undoubtedly true, didn’t add much for this Irish/Italian Catholic.
The book treats cousin marriage as a cultural norm (Farah and husband Mo are cousins, and another potential suitor is Mo’s brother Malik, who arrives from Bangladesh and whom Fatima likes the look of, particularly when he points out how similar her hands are to their shared grandmother’s). It is often funny, and gradually reveals a bunch of family secrets that one could easily knock up in the back of a recipe book while waiting for a loaf to prove. There is a little baking in the novel, incidentally, but rather more Primula cheese and mashed-up prawns.
If you want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist. If you want to read a brilliant book about four sisters, Little Women is still in print. If you like sisters and cooking, try the marvellous Like Water for Chocolate. Or read Ayisha Malik’s book: it’s huge fun.
In the end, I think the worst thing about this is that it feels greedy. Not the good greedy that makes you learn to make delicious things and grab life with both hands, defy expectations, all the things which Hussain has done so admirably. Books are a zero sum game. If you’re reading one, you can’t be reading another. And this surefire seller, promoted at every literary festival you’ll attend this year, just feels like yet another chance snatched away from that kid whose library is closing down.
• Jenny Colgan’s latest novel is Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery (Sphere). The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is published by HarperCollins. To order a copy for £12.99 (RRP £11.04) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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