A Firefly in the Dark is a delight to read. Simply written and assigning itself an area of uncertainty and sensitivity, it unfurls rapidly, and not without feeling. Its stage is an old and haunting house, its hero, a twelve-year-old girl. Its material, however, is nowhere as easy to point out.

To make an attempt: it deals with illness, superstition, inheritance, vengeance, invisibility, and evil. The chief reason I loved it is that the area of uncertainty which the novel assigns itself is love, and how its expression is one of the greater problems we choose to underestimate. Young Sharmeen, our hero, wants to show her bedridden, unconscious father that she loves him, but she’s thrown off when she’s told that to show him love would mean allowing him to die in peace.

She also wants desperately to believe that her superstitious Naani who has died was thoroughly good, and Aziz, the male servant she detested, is absolutely bad. But it will take hard work for Sharmeen to understand that no one worth reading is either entirely good, or utterly evil.

Does the supernatural apply?

From the very first page, we are given a matrilineal inheritance of storytelling and magical powers that the wizened Naani once wanted to hand over to her daughter, Aliya. The rational and defensive Aliya, however, never accepted her mother’s peremptory beliefs. Disappointed in her only child, Naani then shifts focus to the person who gives her the title: her granddaughter, Sharmeen.

The bold young girl is her mother’s polar opposite. She not only has an appetite for her grandmother’s stories about the supernatural, but she is also keen to read those stories into her own life, to see if they apply. And when she discovers that they do is when, of course, the story begins.

The cusp at which the story crosses over from descriptive to engrossing is precisely when – and whenever – we are told how endlessly fiction invades reality. Talking about her daughter Aliya, Naani tells Sharmeen, “And now she’s grown up, my love, and some grown-ups think that stories are only on paper.” An ironic burst comes from Aliya herself; angered upon seeing her daughter turning out like her mother, she tells the latter: “If you want to live in your world of horror and doom, so be it. But leave the rest of us to come to grips with reality.”

The other family

In the pursuit of protecting her loved ones, Sharmeen wilfully enters the world of Jinns and omens, proud of being her grandmother’s successor. Even though Naani’s sayings are melodramatic, and her predictions liable to seem truly bizarre, the reader ends up recognising the familiar strain of aggression one may often express on behalf of one’s family. At the same time, Naani’s prejudices and cold personality reflect a narrow-mindedness that is often at the root of most problems, whether rational or irrational.

The lives within that old house, in that decaying family, are intensely relatable despite the sheer preternatural atmosphere that encases it, despite the Jinns and the evil spirits that hover and creep. So much so so that we are left wondering if it’s because of them that things seem so natural, so explicable. Why else, we might wonder, do our loved ones fall sick? Why else do they suffer?

It goes without saying that the whole thing is a metaphor. Possession by the devil is but possession by a thought, an idea. Our susceptibility to the outside world is the vulnerability of persons in the novel to evil spirits. As Sharmeen’s father Amir has once noted to her, “Some people make their own prisons. Naani’s very happy in the one she’s constructed for herself.”

This possession, this self-possession, is crucial. The inconspicuous fact of space-construction, which often goes hand in hand with one’s more noticeable process of self-construction, is what marks Sharmeen’s constant emotional growth. Even as she learns how to handle ambivalence in human behaviour, she has to navigate the physical corridors of the house and its surroundings, evil banyan trees and so on, to put together a worldview that will retain her sanity. The room in which her father lies, the lawns on which she first encounters her Jinn ally, the creeping comfort of the room in which her grandmother once lived – all of these spaces form corners of a labyrinth that begs to be comprehended – and comprehensible it is, very much so.

It’s just that she who seeks to do so has to wade through voices, sounds, murders, and shadows, all belonging to history, all omnipresent. Shazaf Fatima Haider’s novel is not without its flaws – those being mostly its simplistic narrative style and its eager and clean conclusion, but as a quick read, it succeeds in winning the reader over to the other side, where the Jinns live. I truly wish, however, that A Firefly in the Dark was a graphic novel. I believe it would have been a thrilling fit for that genre.

A Firefly In The Dark, Shazaf Fatima Haider, Talking Cub.