“I’m telling my family about us. I promise.”
This promise from Good Intentions‘ protagonist to his steadfast girlfriend is the heart of Kasim Ali’s impressive debut novel, a story about a pair of British Muslims from different cultural backgrounds who fall in love at university and then must navigate years of hiding their relationship while trying to build a life together, in this serious and reflective novel about being torn between different kinds of love.
The structure of Good Intentions lends itself well to this premise of being caught between two seemingly opposing ideals – Ali bounces back and forth across the timeline of Nur and Yasmina’s relationship, splicing together discordant chapters from various years, from their fateful first meeting at a mutual friend’s (or in Nur’s case ex-girlfriend’s) house party to Nur’s decision to finally, after four years of dating, tell his family the truth, making sure that we get the emotional grounding to their story but also to their wider circle of friends and loved ones.
Nur is the centre of Good Intentions, a tragic hero who just wants to do the right thing by everyone, even at the cost of everything he truly holds dear. Caught between societal and familial expectations (Nur is expected to marry a respectable Pakistani girl) and the love of his university paramour-turned-girlfriend Yasmina (who, while Muslim like Nur and his immediate circle, has Black Sudanese heritage), Nur is a protagonist who is simultaneously empathetic and frustrating in equal measure, a man who loves deeply but also puts off telling his family that he is not only dating, but living with a woman, for four long years, to try and please them. It’s a testament to Ali’s writing that the reader is able to find nuance and complexity in this romantic lead; in fact, if there’s any flaw to Ali’s writing, it’s that Yasmina suffers a little due to the overwhelming focus on Nur’s emotional state, leaving her somewhat at a distance from the reader, when further exploration or even an epilogue from her perspective, would have been a perfect addition to the story.
Throughout Good Intentions, Ali makes sure to populate his story with a cast of enjoyable supporting characters that help flesh out surrounding themes; one of Nur’s closest friends is a semi-closeted gay Muslim who offers a counterpoint to Nur’s own rocky relationship journey, while another friend shuns romance and arranged marriages but ends up exploring them as he matures and changes. A key aspect to Nur’s character is his mental health struggles and it’s refreshing to see a character be allowed to express them without it being the core issue to be explored in a story – both Nur and a key supporting character deal with anxiety and depression, and it’s treated with sympathy and introspection, while simultaneously not letting the characters off the hook for any bad behaviour.
Through this deft characterisation, Ali joins the tradition of exemplary British writers exploring topics of interracial and crossed-culture romance (this reviewer himself grew up on the young adult stories from Bali Rai, replete with arranged marriages and star-crossed lovers and the experience of second-generation immigration in modern Britain), while also exploring the inner turmoil between family expectations and deepest desires, between societal pressures and true freedom, and all the costs inherent within.
A satisfying bittersweet story about love that encompasses all kinds of love – romantic, filial, platonic, and self-compassionate – as well as the permanence and impermanence of love itself, Good Intentions isn’t afraid to avoid the neat and tidy endings that a reader might come to expect from romantic fiction and satisfyingly digs into the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of love in the modern day, proving Ali a writer to watch out for.
Good Intentions is out now from 4th Estate/Harper Collins.