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I picked this book up fairly cheaply second hand and must admit I wasn't expecting very much, having never heard of the author. However, this is easily one better books that I've read in the past few years.
The story tells of a family of first-generation immigrants from Pakistan and the central aspect of the plot surrounds the disapearance of the main character Shamas's brother, Jugnu and his live-in girlfriend Chandra. Chandra's two brothers have recently been arrested for the murder of the pair, believed to be a so-called 'honour killing' due to her living with a man she is not married to.
The book begins in the winter and continues through to the same time the following year and while the main focus is very much the killings the story is also very much about the family themselves and the various difficulties they have had in relocating to such a different country from their homeland. The mother, Kaukab, for example, frequently struggles to reconcile her traditional views with those of her three children and worries for their future in a place she sees as morally corrupt.
The main strength of the book is how the different threads of the stories of the all of the characters, both family members and people who live in the neighbourhood are woven together seamlessly. Character's paths cross and a seemingly chance encounter often proves to mean something later on in the novel, it is all pulled together very neatly. I liked how the story did not just focus on the events of the murders and that rather than present the trials of this one family in a vacuum showed the difficulties experienced by those all around them struggling with similar issues.
The language used in this book is really enjoyable to read, the author uses a lot of descriptive words and the changing of the seasons is described with great detail. Scenes between the characters are given a real atmosphere because of this and the overall 'feel' of the novel is one of beauty, in spite of the various gruesome and unpleasant things which are described within it.
I finished this book very quickly by my standards, not because it is short (if anything it is rather on the long side) but because I found it very engrossing. It is well paced and switches between characters enough to keep you interested but not so often that they lack depth. I was easily able to get through it and will certainly be reading it again.
Although this book proved difficult to get into during the first few pages, I urge you to give it a chance. Once the floaty, flowery narrative had settled down, it left me with one of the best books I have ever read.
The book takes us to an insular Asian community within Britain, where interaction with "whites" is rare and one of the main (Kaukab) characters cannot speak fluent English.
Kaukab is very religious (as she is a Cleric's daughter) and her husband Shamas is a non believer and takes a more liberal, western attitude which causes friction within the community. This creates a beautiful balance within the book as both points of view are explicitly expressed.
Shamas' brother has gone missing, along with his cohabiting partner Chanda. Rumours are rife about honour killing and murder, as well as them running off to Pakistan with each other. The people that know the truth remain silent.
Throughout the book (set over a period of about a year), we see Chanda's brothers get arrested for murder and their family vehemently deny any involvement in the murders. We go through to see the case go to trial and secrets gradually unfold.
It's a well-woven story. Ultimately it helped me to understand things from a multitude of angles, perspectives and points of view. I now have a greater understanding and respect for a culture that is very different to my own.
It's also a rare insight into first-generation immigrants in Britain-how difficult it is for them to alter their worlds to fall into what must seem like the alien norms and values of Britain.
Finally I believe this book can be read on two levels. If you have an English literature degree, you're interested in the subject or you're just that way inclined, then you can interpret and analyse the multitude of metaphors in this book.
If you're more like me, you can understand the odd one, but luckily they're not imperative to the whole story.
Nadeem Aslam was born in Gujranwala, Pakistan in 1966, the son of a poet and sometime film director who had to flee the country when Nadeem was fourteen because of his communist beliefs. The family settled in West Yorkshire where Nadeem went on to start writing, inspired in some ways, one would think, by his father. His first book, Season of the Rainbirds, was published in 1993 to critical acclaim, enabling him to work on his book,
Maps for Lost Lovers. A feat which took him eleven years to complete. It was finished in 2004 and published by Faber & Faber.
I was attracted to the book because of the nature of the story and the number of plaudits given to it by some of my favourite authors. It isnt the sort of book I would normally read, there have been quite a few of these books about lately, but as I picked it up and then replaced it on the shelf, I was being pulled towards what I could see would prove a challenging read. Its quite long at 369 pages and the typeset is very small, so I knew it would take me some time to read. In the end I decided to buy it. At just £2 in a charity shop I thought it worth the money.
The plot is difficult to describe as the actual story is more in the characters than in the action described. The main theme is about two lovers, Jugnu and Chanda who openly live together in defiance of the traditions and religion of their families. When they disappear from the (unnamed) English town they live in speculation is rife in the local community. Then, on a cold January morning, Chandas two brothers are arrested for the murder of the lovers. The following twelve months tells the story of both the present and the past as both families are affected by the events that follow.
The closest family to be affected are Shamas, the older brother of Jugnu and his wife, Kaukab.
Shamas is the director of the Community Relations Council, a respected man who nevertheless is not a particularly religious person much to the grief of his loyal and devoted wife. Much of the power of the book comes from these characters and the way they interact between the other religious cultures.
Aslam has woven elements of various myths and legends into his story, so that each chapter has a poetic title. The prose is indeed flowery and at times almost swamps the narrative, but it covers some often brutal truths about religion and bigotry, sensation, cruelty and bitter loss of a way of life in a strict Muslim community.
The unnamed northern English town where the story is set becomes a strange place of rapturous description, where the reader is lost in the universe of peacocks, butterflies and trees cascading their beauty through winters snowflakes and Springs weeping blossoms. This rich language does make the story hard to follow, though Aslam never loses sight of the woven threads that give life and, yes, achingly tender love, to each chapter.
I found I was beginning to see life through the eyes of the aging Islamic mother, whose faith never falters or her love for her children lessen when they take up the western way of life. I felt the pain of the father and brother who could not converse with his wife and turns his back on a religion that is inflexible. Strangely enough the brutal murders come as something of a relief as the tale turns darker. Possibly because the part played by the lovers is as victims only.
I found the book hard going as it takes a while to penetrate the style of the author. I also found a little bit isolated from the characters, though that was probably because I had expected some startling revelations following on from a story of star-crossed lovers, a sort of modern-day Romeo and Juliet. I can understand why it took Aslam eleven years to write, when its taken me nearly two hours to write this much while trying to omit any words which could be misconstrued as racist. Aslam does this while still keeping the horror and the poetry intact. I thought the book was well worth reading, the kind I would pick up again when the images fade. Definitely worth reading, but not a book for the faint-hearted. It has been hailed as courageous and beautifully written, I agree with that, but as Aslam finally gives his town the name of Dasht-e-Tanhaii, in English The wilderness of solitude or The desert of loneliness. I think I understand what he means.
Published by Faber & Faber.
Available from Amazon at £4.79 new, 0.98 used.
Also a few on Ebay at £1.00.