Book Review: Kismet by Amina Akhtar

Amina Akhtar's Kismet is a viciously funny thriller about wellness―the smoothies, the secrets, and the deliciously deadly impulses. Check out Doreen Sheridan's review!

Ronnie Khan is starting to have second thoughts about her newfound independence. While she’s one hundred percent glad to be out from under the thumb of her abusive aunt back in Queens, New York, she’s beginning to doubt whether picking up stakes and moving to the wellness hotspot of Sedona, Arizona was really the best idea for her.

If she’s being honest with herself, the only reason she’s here is her friendship with empowerment life coach Marley Dewhurst. Marley was the first person to really take an interest in and believe in her. When Ronnie told Marley she wanted an entirely fresh start away from New York City, Marley offered to take her along to Sedona, where Marley is hoping to expand her career far from the eye of her own wealthy socialite mother.

In Sedona, Marley is in her element. The town is heavily dependent on tourist business, and caters to new-age wellness practitioners of all stripes. Ronnie is just glad for a change of scene, but Marley soon starts to fret she isn’t gaining the toehold she desires among the local wellness mavens. That all changes after Marley and Ronnie stumble over a corpse while hiking one morning. After it becomes clear the dead man was the victim of foul play, Marley begins to go on camera urging Sedona residents to stay vigilant against criminals and outsiders, organizing patrols that somehow manage to thrust her into the limelight as a fierce earth-mother-protector, never mind that she’s basically just moved to the area herself.

Ronnie, being Pakistani American, is less than enthused with the underlying xenophobic component of her white best friend’s message. But there’s no denying there’s a killer out there, one who seemingly communes with nature and acts on its orders to kill the humans polluting their desert town:

“Because the ravens,” [the killer] replied. The birds. They’d started all of this. They were the ones who came to her in her dreams, telling her how to heal herself, the land. How to make things better. They’d wanted [her victim] to die for his crimes. She’d had no choice, really. You couldn’t say no to nature like that. It would find a way to kill him if she didn’t. So she’d promised the birds she’d do it. She’d take on their quest, such as it was. In return, they’d help her. Guide her.

As the body count goes up and Marley whips her growing band of followers into a frenzy, Ronnie is trapped between her desire to support her best friend and her growing fear for her own safety. All Ronnie ever wanted was a small, quiet existence with a job and a home of her own, with a small circle of good friends for company. But with a murderer on the loose and the ugly sides of almost everyone she knows coming to the forefront, Ronnie will have to decide how much of her new life she’s willing to risk, if not give up outright, in order to find the peace of mind, body, and soul she’s been seeking for so long. If a killer doesn’t get to her first, that is.

This hilariously goth and brutally honest look at the wellness industry had me feeling extremely seen, especially in the parts where Ronnie collided head on with the racism of the oblivious and well-meaning. One scene that had me cringing in absolute sympathy with Ronnie—because I’ve endured several forms of this kind of treatment myself—was when local doyenne Lorraine was aghast to learn Ronnie was neither Indian nor Hindu as she assumed but was actually, horror of horrors, Muslim. Marley congratulates Ronnie later for handling the encounter well, but Ronnie knows exactly what that means:

“Handled it well” was code for not making a scene. You always knew you handled it well when someone white applauded you. Ronnie wanted to scream at Lorraine, call her racist. But being uncivil was worse than calling someone racist. “Here to help!” Ronnie chirped. She didn’t like that woman. She was sure Lorraine was perfectly nice, but she didn’t want anything to do with her. She didn’t like the way she’d looked at Ronnie. As if she’d eat her up if she could.

Amina Akhtar pulls no punches in this terrifically murderous satire of a brown woman struggling to maintain her sanity in a world of the purportedly enlightened. I actually gasped out loud before laughing, aghast, at another scene where a woman hands Ronnie a card for a battered women’s shelter—a kind enough gesture—before saying something deeply racist. The scene is played for laughs but the searing pain of recognition I felt was deadly serious. The upside, of course, is how reassuring it is to know that this kind of feeling is shared by other people, and that those of us who suffer such micro-aggressions aren’t just being sensitive or crazy, as far too many of us have been told.

As rock solid as its social acuity is the thriller aspect of this novel. While one of the biggest twists was fairly well telegraphed, the others managed to catch me completely off-guard. I also enjoyed the way the mild supernatural component of this book was handled, with viewpoint chapters from the ravens who consider themselves the guardians of Sedona. This is the kind of book that will make readers think more deeply about their interactions with the world around them, and perhaps reevaluate whether they’re doing more good than harm in their pursuit of inner peace.

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