Arifa Akbar’s memoir begins with the death of her sister from a mysterious illness. Before she died in 2016, aged 45, Fauzia had already been rushed to hospital twice, the cause of her symptoms unknown. She had complained of chest pains, shortness of breath and night sweats. Her face began to swell and her lungs became inflamed, but still doctors were clueless. Later, as her speech started to slur and her behaviour became erratic, she was put in an induced coma and subsequently had a brain haemorrhage. Eventually there was a diagnosis: she had died of tuberculosis.
Akbar was left with questions, among them: why hadn’t Fauzia been diagnosed earlier? How, in 2016, does a person contract TB? Her sister’s death also prompted a broader reflection on her life and the ways she had been failed by others. Along with telling the story of a sibling, Consumed is also a candid dissection of family with its complex bonds and rifts, and an acute portrait of grief and mental illness. “Life brought Fauzia pain,” Akbar writes.
The eldest sibling, Fauzia was born in Pakistan shortly after her father had left for the UK to find work and start a new life. She didn’t meet him until she was one, when she and her mother first joined him in London. The child instinctively shrank from this man who was, to her, a stranger, which he took as a personal slight. Throughout her childhood, he subjected her to sustained abuse, reprimanding and taunting her, pulling her hair and often refusing to eat at the same table as her. He made no secret of the fact that her younger sister, Arifa, was the preferred daughter; his emotional cruelties towards Fauzia were, notes Akbar, “so insistent, every day and unrelenting, that they became normalised in our home”.
In her teens, Fauzia began to experience depression – she was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder – and developed an eating disorder which would lead to long periods of near-starvation followed by binge eating. She was filled with bitterness, and struggled to move forward with her life. Fauzia and Arifa’s sibling relationship ebbed and flowed: there was closeness and camaraderie as children but, in adulthood, they would be estranged for long periods before cautiously making up, the wounds they both carried never fully healing.
In telling Fauzia’s story, Akbar moves between tenderness and frustration, compassion and helplessness. She grapples with her own part in her sister’s misery – could she have done more to defend her? Why did she escape her father’s ire? – as well as that of her parents. Akbar’s father now lives in a care home, dementia having long ago rendered him unreachable, so instead there are conversations with her mother which tell a wider story of a marriage built on secrets and false promises, and a family who came to London from Lahore for a better life and instead lived their early years in extreme poverty.
Akbar occasionally paints herself as an unreliable witness to her and her sister’s lives and in doing so, highlights how memory is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions or smooth off our rougher edges. She recalls the family shuttling back and forth between Britain and Pakistan when she was small, and observes her view of 1970s Lahore as comparable to the fantasy of the Bollywood movie Mughal-e-Azam, with its exaggerated palette and airbrushing of background political strife. The permanent move to London, leaving behind cherished cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, wrenched Arifa from an idyllic life and turned her world grey. But, for Fauzia, the world had been grey all along.
In fact, it is through an artistic lens that Akbar seeks to understand herself and her sister, locating similarities in their relationship to Amy and Jo in Little Women and, as adults, in the two warring sisters in the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She is transfixed by the film version of Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Launderette, by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Puccini’s La Bohème, and the ways they throw light on the world and her family’s place in it.
Elsewhere, she tries to reconnect posthumously with her sister through her artworks, her analysis providing some of the book’s most profoundly moving moments. In her 40s, Fauzia found respite and focus via a return to art college. Her work, which was deemed remarkable by her tutors, brought together embroidery and painting, the latter inspired by the Renaissance paintings and frescos she had seen many years earlier during a visit to Rome. Amid Fauzia’s vast portfolio, Akbar unearths portraits of herself, some more flattering than others, which document, through her sister’s eyes, “my fall, from angel to devil. These … pictures remind me that, just as she was my demon sister for a time … I was hers.”
Despite the themes of grief, trauma and illness, Consumed is far from a misery memoir. It is, rather, an insightful and often lyrical study of siblings and the story of a troubled life cut short. Akbar is wise enough to understand that much of her sister’s inner life will remain unknowable. Nonetheless, as Fauzia immortalised her sister in art, she has done the same, vividly and wonderfully, in prose.