Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif – review

Mohammed Hanif's second novel doesn't quite measure up to his debut but has a satisfying surprise ending

Featuring a walk-on role for Osama bin Laden and the plane crash which killed Pakistan's president, General Zia-ul-Haq, Mohammed Hanif's exuberantly witty 2008 debut, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was widely cast as a political satire. But Hanif also adeptly wove in a delicate love story, a mystery, and a cast of wonderful characters: it was no wonder he featured heavily in literary awards that year. And in his follow-up, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Hanif once again oversees a bubbling cauldron of ideas, people and social conscience.

At first, his second novel seems to have far more intimate pretensions than its predecessor. No headline-grabbing, "what-if" takes on seismic political events here, just a young nurse – the titular Alice Bhatti – trying to live life on the right side of the tracks in Karachi's Catholic-run Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments. Keeping her Christianity a secret, she seems both sweet and worldly-wise, but Hanif is nothing if not provocative, and so it's no real surprise that Bhatti meets body-building Muslim Teddy. An apprentice with the violently corrupt Gentlemen's Squad of the Karachi police, he memorably describes his job as providing "valet parking for the angels of death". Teddy and Alice embark on a deeply strange love affair: she appears not in the least bit concerned that, after his initial advances are spurned, he aimlessly fires a gun into the air in frustration, hitting a lorry driver and sparking a three-day riot in the Karachi streets.

The portrayal of that riot is ridiculous and funny, yet painfully true. Frankly, it's the best section of the book, and the frequent nods to corruption in a volatile Pakistan are important and revealing, too. Perhaps one would expect Hanif, as a journalist, to skewer the terrible attitudes to Pakistan's women and its society's endemic misogyny, but he does so without ever resorting to heavy-handed polemic.

Impressive stuff, but at the same time Hanif never really finds the coherent story which would make his ideas all the more powerful. Exploding Mangoes revelled in multiple narratives and subplots, and while Hanif attempts something similar here, it feels more like a haphazard series of sketches in search of some forward momentum. Perhaps that's the point, that life for the Alice Bhattis of this world is more confusing than straightforward and requires a stoic sense of humour. This is the woman, after all, who somewhat wearily remarks that "every happiness asks for a down payment".

Hanif, though, has one more trick up his sleeve – the ending. Inviting a complete rereading of every single one of Alice's motivations and actions thus far, it's less a twist than a metaphysical U-turn. It won't be to everybody's taste, but the fact that Mohammed Hanif is prepared to take the chance that it might work is worth celebrating. He hasn't quite reached the heights of Exploding Mangoes – but with Our Lady of Alice Bhatti he doesn't play it safe either.

Ben East

The GuardianTramp

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