IN ALL the furore about whether a man can have two wives or more, few think to question whether a woman can have two husbands.

Somewhere along the historical path of translating laws, scriptures and other messages plucked out of the heavens, women have been pushed into a subservient corner. Lessons in Husbandry is a lovely novel where one of the meek women prized by so many religions decides to go against the grain. Not in a strident, clamouring, feminist way, but simply by conducting some investigations and not telling anyone what she's up to.

Malak, the central character of Shaida Kazie Ali's beautifully written story, isn't in the least bit strident. She's a well behaved, unassuming young Muslim whose life has never really blossomed since her older sister disappeared 12 years ago. As if the bloom Malak could have become remained a bud after the brightest flower was pruned.

The novel set in Cape Town begins when Malak joins a reading class so she can write to her missing sister Amal. Her elderly friend Rakel has signed her up for the class, along with other hobby groups ostensibly designed for Rakel's benefit, but perhaps with the underlying motive of encouraging Malak to become more outgoing and fulfilled.

Malak and Rakel run a bakery making cupcakes, and those small versions of bigger cakes nicely symbolise Malak's own stunted life. She has never dated or fallen in love, yet is burdened with a husband after inheriting Amal's fiancé, Taj. Nobody thought to cancel the wedding, she explains, so she stepped in to play the bride. She received the wedding present too, but never opened them, feeling like a fraud.

Taj and Malak are not in love, but cling together through a sense of duty and the belief that by hanging onto each other they can help to preserve the memory of the missing girl.

Malak's life changes when she meets Darya, an artist, and instantly feels an attraction her caged emotions have previously never been stirred by. Just how married is she, Malak ponder?. There is sex but no passion or love in her marriage, and Taj regularly cheats on her because he's not in love.

The author weaves in several digs at the way certain sects or men in general have misinterpreted various aspects of the Qur'an, as Malak discusses the issues with Precious, a dagga-smoking religious affairs student. Technically, Precious points out, the guidance that allows a Muslim man to take more than one wife is equally applicable to women. Now Malak faces a dilemma of whether to sacrifice her chance of happiness for the sake of respectability.

Lessons in Husbandry is an easy yet clever and engaging read, with superb characterisation focusing on a situation that is odd but entirely believable. It's a beautifully written, honest look into a community where the women are really just like everybody else.

It's peppered with wit and irony, and enlivened with an imaginative use of language. As Malak develops her writing skills she neatly describes her aunt Shireen: "Whenever she has something done that makes her look like a younger more plastic version of herself and people ask why she looks different, she tells them she's had a new hairdo."

The tale is naturally riddled with sorrow too, with some striking insights into how grief, death or uncertainty affect a family. Malak feels almost guilty about remaining alive, as if her continuing presence is a nuisance that prevents her mother devoting all her time and attention to grieving for her missing daughter. It's a sad reminder that people can bestow more energy on the people they have lost than those who are still with them.

Malak is also trapped by the loss of her sister and seems unable to flourish in her own right. More than a decade later she vainly hopes that Amal will just waltz in one day, saying "Sorry, I forgot what time it was."

Thankfully the sense of waste and despair never becomes maudlin, and is counterbalanced beautifully with much humour in the telling of the tale. Even so, I read the last section with a sense of impending doom, fearful that Malak would abandon her own potential happiness for reluctant conformity. But Ali has made her heroine stronger than that, and avoids a trite ending that would be one downtrodden step too many.

TITLE: Lessons in Husbandry

AUTHOR: Shaida Kazie Ali

PUBLISHER: Random House Struik