Born in a Pakistani village, Halima’s is a childhood of two halves. Against a backdrop of beautiful mountain scenery, she spends her early years getting into scrapes with her adored brother Imran, and learning to embroider with her mother. Her father is a distant figure, who works away in England. When Halima is ten however, the whole family moves to London and her horizons alter for ever. Slowly she finds her feet at school, learns a new language and gains a close English friend, Kate. Her traditionally-minded father appears keen for her to go to university. A marriage is arranged for her elder sister, Asma, to a handsome man she soon grows to love, and Halima falls for his cousin Mahmood, a respectable Muslim boy. Her hopes for her own future happiness are high. But then comes the bombshell. Her father plans to marry Halima to the son of a distant relative in Pakistan. Halima is to be the repayment of a debt, the fulfilment of a promise made when she was only eight years old. It’s payback time.
Hayes has based Payback on the real experiences of a young Muslim woman who was brave enough to defy her family and reject the arranged marriage that was being forced upon her. Payback gives a welcome and often gripping airing to this topical issue, examining concepts of family honour, religion, love and the place of women in society in an accessible way.
My problem with this book is in its hurried conclusion. Halima’s story is a compelling one until she runs away from her family, and attempts to begin a new life. Her subsequent kidnap and its consequences are crammed into the final 30 pages, giving us little chance to really experience the danger. What’s more, Halima’s voice virtually disappears from the book. And that, for me, means missing much of the point.