Songs of Blood and Sword:
A Daughter’s Memoir
Nation Books, 2010
Review by Kylie Grant
Fatima Bhutto’s book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir (Nation Books, 2010), is ambitious. To tell the story of her family, a family caught up in its own violent history and the history of Pakistan, must have been difficult one to write. It begins with a fascinating and detailed description of the days leading up to her father, Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s assassination. There are many touching moments, including descriptions of her father’s clothes, how he spoke, little points about his intellect and thoughtfulness, and even a description of his smell. To do this right from the beginning gives the book a personal rather than political feel, and it is this that catches the reader unawares. Prepared perhaps by a cultural knowledge of Pakistan’s, and indeed the Bhutto’s history, for a wholly political dissection of a family, the reader is given something entirely different, we are given something familial. This is also disconcerting at times, these tiny touches of character, the set up she gives her father, and her intimate tone, edges the reader towards asking what it is she is not saying.
After a dramatic set up, Fatima then slowly and painfully, details the day of her father’s death. She describes its possible connections with an abduction of a senior member of her father’s political party, and then tantalises us by briefly mentioning Benazir Bhutto, her aunt and the woman she would later blame for her father’s death. It is an engaging read even from the preface, pulling you in to every detail that she can either recollect or has excavated through research. The section detailing how she shielded her younger brother as their home was fired upon, is full of emotional impact and portrays effectively the image of a shattered family; a family that seemed to always be trying to protect themselves, even as politics threatened to tear them apart.
It is a strong opening and it is a shame that we lose the personal when Fatima begins her explorations into her family history after the initial account of the assassination. In the chapters that follow there are long and detailed accounts of the Bhutto family and how they grew to be one of the most powerful and yet destructive families in Pakistan. Sentences tend to be overlong, which gives the book a thorough tone, yet it often fails to feel in-depth. Instead it is more like Fatima is telling a story she has heard too many times to tell with enthusiasm. Her prose is often dry and without the intimate tone of her first two chapters. The most interesting parts are the ones concerning the myths and legends of the early Bhuttos. The leader and warrior Doda Kahn is especially captivating. Through him and his near mythic status, Fatima constructs the legend and resilience of the Bhutto family, ‘They battled, led by Doda Kahn, the brains behind the operation and not an easy man to confront’.
It is the control that Fatima has over this book that stops it from being a true exploration into both politics and family. She is a brave and knowledgeable woman, but she cannot let you come to this on your own. Rather like the family she both berates and loves, she is unwilling to let go and trust that others can piece together the truth. Her character portrayals, especially those focused on Benazir, are revealing though again limited by Fatima’s rather restrictive and selective lens. There are also omissions of her father’s darker politics. Only briefly does she discuss his temper, and although this book rarely misses an opportunity to describe death, it feels as if it isn’t quite ready to tackle it wholeheartedly.
Songs of Blood and Sword is an often touching portrayal of loss and of what it means to lose the person you most looked to for your own identity. It is also a book about history, about how you can make it your own, and how you can rebuild a family, despite a violent separation. Where Fatima fails is the extent to which the personal and the political are entangled, truth is often left to linger, questions go unanswered and the myths of the Bhutto family go on regardless.
Kylie Grant recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent at Canterbury, earning a distinction. She has been writing for four years and during this time she has tried many different forms including both short stories and novellas. She is currently writing a novel entitled The house that we built in which she explores the complexities of a relationship breakdown. In May 2010, she won a competition run by the University of Kent that resulted in one of her short stories being displayed on local buses travelling around the area. Another of her short stories will be included in an anthology being launched in December 2010 and published by Canterbury City Press. She was also highly commended by the Manchester Fiction Prize panel in 2009 for her short story entitled ‘Truth’. In addition to her fiction she is a keen journalist and has written on a variety of issues for Inquire, the University of Kent’s student newspaper, and co-edited a journal for post graduate students. She now works as a law librarian and is often shocked by her constant desire for orderly bookshelves.
Kylie Grant recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent at Canterbury, earning a distinction. Her short fiction has been published in print and online. She works as a librarian in London and obsesses over orderly bookshelves and stolen stationery. The House that We Built is her first novel, and she was inspired to write it by her teenage years spent reading crime novels and an overabundance of broken hearted poets. If you would like to know more or would just like to say hello please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.