A dead girl who doesn’t stay dead, a house of luxury courtesans, and a world in which anyone without a job is fair game to be culled: And What Can We Offer You Tonight, by Premee Mohamed, serves up all of that and more. This atmospheric novella is a meditation on human worth in a world where only the rich are seen as people.
Jewel is grateful to work at House Bicchieri, one of the classiest and most expensive brothels in the city. She has a roof over her head, food to eat, and a job that keeps her alive. Does she realize that the world is massively unfair, that she and her fellow courtesans are being taken advantage of? Of course she does. But that’s just the way the world works, and she knows there is no point in questioning it.
When her friend, Winfield, wakes up at her own funeral, Jewel responds with surprising equanimity. She’s more concerned about where her fellow courtesan is going to stay, now that her room has reassigned to another (living) person, than about the fact that she has returned from death. Then Winfield decides that she is going to find the man who murdered her, and Jewel’s world begins to slide out of control.
Some people might think that Winfield is the more natural protagonist – she, after all, is the one who rises from death, who stalks the city taking down rapists, murderers, and bullies. That makes for a very a good story, but it’s one we have seen many times before. Instead, Jewel gives us the inner turmoil of the reluctant, the well-behaved, and the responsible.
Mohamed’s use of language took my breath away. It’s lyrical and dense, conjuring an almost dreamlike state at times. But it also captures Jewel’s anxieties when necessary, breaking apart into fragments that evoke the gasping stutter of pure panic. Her struggle becomes our struggle. She wants to protect her friend, but she also wants to keep her job, to remain safe and alive (something that Winfield no longer has to worry about). The balance between survival and dignity is at the heart of this story, and the narrative never lets us forget it.
The resolution strikes a balance between hope and realism, allowing us to imagine a better future for the characters. It doesn’t tie anything up in a perfect bow, which is an excellent choice; this story is too emotionally raw for that to feel satisfying.
This moody dystopia isn’t afraid to linger over tough questions and internal quandaries, without ever feeling stuck. I was enthralled by Jewel’s story and her world from start to finish, and I think you will be, too. If you enjoy beautiful language, languid story telling, and character driven plots, check out And What Can We Offer You Tonight, by Premee Mohamed.