Romantic thriller explores migration, human trafficking and Afrophobia

A romantic thriller with thoughtful social commentary, this is a deeply satisfying read

13 October 2019 - 00:00 By Ayesha Kajee

Published in the Sunday Times: 13/10/2019

The Economics of Love and Happiness *****
Shafinaaz Hassim
Worldflute Press International, R250

Shafinaaz Hassim's multi-layered novel wraps a tender love story around serious themes of migration, human trafficking and Afrophobia. A former architecture student who took photography and art lessons, Hassim drew from those experiences to create Romina Desai, a celebrated visual artist whose work is desecrated on the eve of her show's opening.

Romi courageously opts to leave the damaged painting in the show. Her political commentary through art is used as justification to deny her a Schengen visa, despite her European tour being planned months in advance.

Romi dismisses the suggestion that she is brave, instead describing her art as "an urgency to respond to what life throws down onto the table ... to act or express what I see happening in the world."

On a trip to Mumbai, Romi meets Ismail Mamadou, a London-based Senagalese journalist, who simultaneously irritates and attracts Romi. They meet again when Issu arrives in Johannesburg on the trail of an investigation into human trafficking. The story has personal significance for him, as his older sister Aishou disappeared during his childhood.

As Romi and Issu explore their mutual attraction, they also uncover a trafficking network concealed behind seemingly innocuous and legitimate enterprises. Through secondary characters including Aishou, Romi's aunt Sadia, and sex worker Sabrina, Hassim explores complex family dynamics, the pervasive racism behind SA's rainbow facade, and the age-old transactional use of women's bodies and labour.

Cities play an important role in the novel. Hassim's almost poetic rendering of Mumbai in monsoon season contrasts sharply with its less-lovely grime and grinding poverty. Issu experiences a Joburg "where children are being bartered for a price, and permits are still needed to document and allow black movement". Yet Joburg is also the setting of a sylvan picnic and memorable romantic interlude.

Hassim evokes some empathy for even the most unsympathetic characters, as she pries open the oysters that guard their secrets. Behind the abusive husband we glimpse the emasculation of the unemployed male who has become the butt of his friends' snide allusions. The high-living sophisticate who callously escorts minors overseas reveals another facet as the sibling who is determined to provide life-saving surgery for the family matriarch.

As these vignettes take us from Sandton's billionaire belt to middle-class suburbs and gritty townships, the novel brings to life SA's second, informal economy, showcased by the roadside hairdresser as well as the "housewife" who sells rotis to her neighbours.

Threads of loss and grief wend through the narrative - Romi was orphaned as a child, Issu lost his sister, and many unsuspecting families lose their children to a life of exploitation.

In an interview, Hassim explains: "If life is a constant uncovering of meaning and identity and a sense of self, then loss gives rise to different forms of thirst, and until that thirst is quenched . through different forms of expression, through relationships that we have, through travel, that thirst is an ongoing process, just as grief is. So they form a dual dance through life."

Romi and Issu's eloquent tango, and the myriad waltzes and jives of the other characters, make The Economics of Love and Happiness a deeply satisfying read on many levels.

A romantic thriller with a feisty heroine and hunky hero, it is also thoughtful social and political commentary, and a philosophical treatise on human emotions. @ayeshakajee