Book Review: Fugue States by Pasha Malla


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

bk - fugue states


Category: General Fiction (Adult)

Author: Pasha Malla

Format: E-book via NetGalley, 352 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada

ISBN: 978-0-3458-1133-2

Pub Date: May 30, 2017


Summary from Publisher:

Pasha Malla burst onto the literary scene in 2009 with his first book, a collection of stories called The Withdrawal Method that won the Trillium Book Award, was a Globe Top 100 pick, and was nominated for the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 2012, he published his first novel, People Park, which was shortlisted for the First Novel Award. Now, with the extraordinary Fugue States, he gives us a layered, mature work—equal parts funny and poignant, thought-provoking and compulsively, effortlessly readable.

   Fugue States opens with the eulogy at a funeral: a eulogy delivered by Ash, a radio host, upon the death of his father, Brij, a Kashmir-born doctor and would-be writer. Later, while sorting through his father’s belongings, Ash comes across a mysterious document: a half-completed and utterly baffling work of fiction set (possibly) in Kashmir. Ash begins to wonder about his Indian heritage and the ancestral home he knows only through his father’s stories—as a place of brutality and stunning natural beauty. And yet he resists going to visit, skeptical of being another Westerner visiting a war-torn homeland; instead, Ash’s best friend Matt—a drifter, pot-head, career bartender, massage therapy student, and self-described “maker of memories” (in other words, a “fool” in the best sense, in the spirit of Shakespeare and Cervantes and Nabokov’s Pnin)—takes it upon himself to go in Ash’s place…with strange, unexpected, hilarious and excruciating results.

     Fugue States is a spectacular novel, at once a parody of clueless tourism and western meddling in world affairs and a subtle, immensely affecting book about homesickness and the deep melancholy that abides in people who, like Ash and his father, and even like the foolish Matt, have never felt completely at home in the world.

  • From NetGalley

Book Review:

The book begins with the definition of fugue:

A fugue is a composition founded upon one subject, announced at first in one part alone, and subsequently imitated by all the other parts in turn… The name is derived from the Latin word, fuga, a flight, from the idea that one part starts on its course alone, and that those which enter later are pursuing it.

To understand the meaning of fugue is to look at the novel, Fugue States, by Pasha Malla, in its entirety.

From its inception, the reader is given its lead character, Ash, a successful author and radio host who must navigate the recent loss of his father and what that means to him as a son, a man, a writer.

And as the reader moves further into the book, the surrounding characters, too, in their individualism are not only affected by Ash’s loss and grief, but must also navigate their own pursuits in understanding who they are, how loss and pain has afflicted their own circumstances, and what they must do to survive and move through it themselves.

What’s wonderful about this novel is the realism of its narrative dialogue in bringing these characters to life through a genuine voice that depicts them vividly from:

Ash’s sombre and keen observation of others that almost feel lightly pessimistic and sad, yet witty, sarcastic, articulate, intelligent, yet insecure and self-critical—almost nostalgic with a deference to sentimentality or nostalgia; to Mona, his sister, who by career, is a successful lawyer, but openly emotional and sentimental; to _______ and Rick, his creative and hippie-living mother and stepfather; to Sherene, his intellectual and cultural equal, potentially his love-interest, but platonic co-worker and friend; to Chip, a zealously affectionate father to his son with special needs; to Matt, his polar opposite, a nomadic hedonist adventurer and long-time friend; to his late father, Brij, a latent writer-turned-doctor whose nostalgia for Kashmir and home haunted him and his son’s conversations and connection with one another.

The novel is as surprising as its non-traditional, non-linear plot, which include in its narrative both unexpected, almost absurd events, which seem surreal, if not adapted for film.

But, these events both pose as entertainment as they do emotional trauma and weariness, a sense of making memories as a way to cope and revitalize feeling, invigorate bravery, and an almost desperate attempt to make something happen—out of pain, disconnect, and loss.

The book is both dizzying in its ever-changing plot as it is in its open-ended questions, those literally unasked, yet assumed, by the lack of definitive conclusions and outcomes in the book. Yet, it’s a thoughtful narrative in the way the main character, Ash, shows through his actions and often times, his repressed actions, his emotional landscape, his ambition towards understanding the relationship he had with his father, what it means in understanding his own loss, and his own self-realization.

While the events in the book may at times seem far-fetched, the tender and serious tone of the unspoken and unsaid, resonates a story of the deep complexity of uncertain relationship and love—and the question of home, culture, and memory.


Characters: 4 stars

Plot: 4 stars

Language/Narrative: 4 stars

Dialogue: 4.5 stars

Pacing: 3.5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House on behalf of Knopf Canada for providing me with an e-copy of the book, Fugue States by Pasha Malla through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and timely review.


About the Author:

author - pasha malla

Pasha Malla was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland and raised in London, Ontario. He attended Concordia University in Montreal as a graduate student.

His debut book, The Withdrawal Method, a collection of short stories, won the Trillium Book Award and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, as well as being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. One of his short stories, “Filmsong”, won an Arthur Ellis Award while another was published on Joyland, a hub for short fiction.

Snare Books released All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts, a collection of poetry. His first novel, People Park, was published in 2012.

Malla is a frequent contributor to The Walrus.

  • From Goodreads


You can connect with Pasha Malla on: Facebook, and Goodreads.



zara - kai lan frame


Today Marks a Special Day

(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @zaraalexis / @zaraasian

Today marks a special day: April 5th, 2016.

It’s the 69th anniversary of the day the first man I ever loved was born—yup—my Dad.

What’s so special about that?  you say. Everyone has a dad.

Yeah, but this one is mine.

If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here—literally. The news of my conception was unexpected and for most people, unwelcome. But, it was my father who said, “You’re not killing my child.”

I wasn’t kept—I was saved.

I was premature, sickly, tiny, and well…not a cute  infant. The proof would be in the criticism of friends who whispered tidbits of gossip, wet with pity and distaste saying things like:

Oh…I’m so glad our children weren’t born THAT way…

while they smiled through gritted teeth at my parents who suffered the fear of my potential death or stigma.

At a party, one of my Dad’s friends, who, after a large amount of beer, whiskey, and whatever was left of the liquor behind the bar, had the intoxicated audacity to tease my father (and trust me when I say, my father is not  one to be teased) and said, “Pare, your daughter looks like a pig!”

My father’s answer?

A sucker punch striking the insult and his friend with a precise blow of his fist. Hard. Party over.

No one calls his  daughter  a name, especially one so insulting. I was only a baby, for crying out loud. And my father loved me. He was proud. It didn’t matter if I was the size of a pop can with a flat nose who maybe resembled a “piglet.”

Hah! And that was the beginning of it all.

I was the tiny, sickly, “ugly” baby that my father would always love and protect.


Me and my Dad, 1975. (c) Photo by Africa D. Garcia. All rights reserved.
Me and my Dad, 1975. (c) Photo by Africa D. Garcia. All rights reserved.

While we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, Dad’s thoughtfulness was shown in his priority to still provide for us, not only in our basic needs, but in a way that meant we were still allowed a little luxury  from time to time.

While my mother was practical to the point of frugality, it was my father who still made it a point for us to visit a store called Consumers Distributing, where we could browse catalogues, and order products by filling out forms, and waiting for these products to shoot out from a warehouse full of stock in the back. It was then that my sister and I had the hopes of getting a highly coveted toy rather than ill-fitted clothing.

One evening, my Dad brought home a Strawberry Shortcake record player  for my sister and me. The moment he pulled it out of its large, white plastic bag, I gasped with awe and glee. It was encased in white with a red turntable and attachable microphone. I could sing  along with it! A practice I wouldn’t and couldn’t stop until I was scolded into silence later on.

My mother, who worried about our finances and the true necessity of such a splurge meant that Dad got an earful of complaining and scolding of his own. But, that didn’t deter him from buying it and giving it to us.

He said in our defense, “Mama…these are our kids. They deserve  nice things, too, once in a while. It’s okay. They like it!”

And with that, it was forever cemented in my small, aching heart—my Dad was my hero.

While it was later that he had become somewhat bewildered by what it meant to have two daughters; the girls with an awkwardness in temperament that sometimes gave him a sense of wistfulness, at other times, anxiety—he was, also, a strict disciplinarian.

While he had an edge of foreboding strength, determination, and sometimes intolerance, I know my Dad unlike many of those who would misunderstand his serious nature and direct gruffness. Underneath the hard exterior that was chiseled out of many years of suffering, hardship, and sorrowful disappointment, is a man who has a deep reservoir of feeling.

He’s the man who often wore headphones and played classical guitar while encouraging me to sing along with him to songs sung by the Beatles or the Everly Brothers. Yesterday  and Dream, Dream, Dream,  were songs that have now become sentimental anthems that will always belong to only me and my father.

He’s also the man who taught me how to ride a bike, encouraging me to ride a two-wheeler triple my size because he believed  I could do it. And even after I had a traumatizing biking accident while on a French-exchange trip to Baie-Comeau, Quebec, home of former Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney; my father was the one who encouraged me to get on my bike again soon after the accident—or else be crippled with fear forever and never cycle again.

He was also the person who bought me my first and most beloved toy, my Big Wheel.  While other girls fancied sparkly, pink three-wheelers with shimmering streamers hanging at the handlebars, I was indulged by my father with a “rough and tough” Big Wheel, which was usually driven only by boys at the time. I rode that thing up and down our street with a frenzied tenacity that made up most of the happiness in my childhood.

And while I wasn’t a firstborn son,  as most fathers in the Asian culture are favoured to have, I was and am his firstborn. 

Before my brother was born 12 years later, I was happily adopted into my father’s world of sport. My father’s loyalty to our city’s team, one of the original six: the Toronto Maple Leafs, prompted my starry-eyed fascination with hockey and soon became my idol of worship at the young age of eight.

I watched almost every hockey game religiously with my Dad on Saturday nights. I learned the rules of hockey from my Dad’s exasperated screams at the television when a penalty was called or an enforcer didn’t live up to the fists the league was paying him for. I proudly knew what a shorthanded goal was and memorized hockey lineups like musical lyrics. While girls in my class opted for batting their eyelashes at the boys in class, I was busy trading hockey cards with them, negotiating hard for rare specimens and team players that would finally complete my hard-earned collection.

He even took me to my very first hockey game at the beloved-and-now-gone-but-always-remembered, iconic Maple Leaf Gardens  stadium. I even remember what I was wearing that night: a light pink sweater, white jeans, and pink Hang-Ten shoes with my hair tied tightly into a ponytail. I hollered at every breakaway, offside call, penalty, and goal at that game. And at the end of it, my Dad bought me postcards of the Hound Line: Wendel Clark, Russ Courtnall, and Gary Leeman! It remains to this day, one of the best nights of my life.

I even begged for a hockey jersey for Christmas with the number 9 on it in exchange for voiding all expectations of any other presents that year. Receiving that blue jersey was equivalent to getting a glimpse of the much-fabled unicorn—only better.

Even my penmanship (which has received numerous compliments and even the suggestion to transpose it into an actual, digital font) is a credit to my father. I was four-years-old when he taught me how to write—in cursive. But, not only did he teach me how to write the alphabet or encourage me to practice every single day at the dining table after school, he also taught me how to put pen to paper with ambition and respect. I wrote pages and pages of letters until they were filled with perfect strokes of ink under my father’s watchful instruction. My “beautiful” penmanship and personal script is a culmination of years under my father’s loving and strict tutelage.

And my love of language and writing was birthed by my father’s love of words, too. Most people are unaware that while he is a keen crossword solver intent on playing the daily crossword in the newspaper only in the permanency of blue or black ink (to play in pencil, according to my father, is a sign of cowardice), he was also an official Scrabble champion in high school and/or university.

But, it hasn’t always been serious instruction or loving discipline from my father either. Don’t be fooled. My father has a sharp, biting wit, that if not careful, will slap you right in the face of berating embarrassment.

There’s nothing that my father detests more than ignorance and stupidity. If you’re going to believe in something strongly, decide to contest him, or say something unfounded, you better be ready to back it up with intelligence, reason, and facts.

He’s well-read, well-versed, and won’t be afraid to call you on what you say or how poorly you misbehave when it’s required. And he won’t be nice  about it either. He doesn’t have to be—because really, he’s usually  right. Diplomacy will usually take a back seat if it means you need to learn a hard lesson in the politics of respect and decency.

But, he has a brilliant sense of humour, too. And not just when he enjoys a strong shot of whiskey either. Dad knows  how to tell a good joke. And not just of the knock, knock  variety (while his knock knock  jokes are pretty good, too). His wit is matched by his superb timing. And his humour is intelligent and will guarantee a laugh, even by those whose sour faces have long forgotten the jab of a good punchline.

While propriety has always been high on my father’s list of mandatory attributes in others, he has been known to dispel stuffiness and self-conscious behaviour with his fearlessness.

I have a lot of stories like this about me and my Dad, an enigma to most, and one of the most intelligent and fiercely loving and passionate people I know.

So, today, I raise a glass to you, Dad. While mine isn’t a shot of Crown Royal, I raise it high in your honour.

May you be blessed with continual health, happiness, and many more years of life and love! Happy birthday, Dad. Love you, forever…

Thank you for loving me with a tenderness that only a “favourite daughter” can know.


Me and Dad, 1989. (c) Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
Me and Dad, 1989. (c) Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.