Thinner Than Skin, Uzma Aslam Khan (2012)

Thinner Than Skin
Thinner Than Skin, by Uzma Aslam Khan. New Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012. (Purchased in India).

I started off loving this book, thinking it was the best thing I’d read in a long time and was poised to add it to my favourites list. But then the story petered out, losing its grip over me. It was not so much that the plot lost its way: this remained unpredictable, tense and interesting. It was that the characters who start off being built up so nicely into well-rounded, real people, became secondary to the landscape and political intricacies.

Thinner Than Skin is largely told from the perspective of Nadir, a Pakistani photographer based in San Francisco, who travels to the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan to try to establish himself as a landscape photographer. Accompanying him is his neurotic American girlfriend Farhana, of half-Pakistani origin, her colleague, an unashamedly American glaciologist, and an Pakistani friend of Nadir’s. The group have to rely on the hospitality of the local inhabitants of the region, many of whom are nomadic. This hospitality is readily given, but puts a strain on social interactions, particularly as the trip is undertaken during a politically sensitive time. A devastating encounter with a local family brings forth the cultural arrogance of the Americans in the group and shatters the fragile bond between Nadir and the self-absorbed Farhana.

Uzma Aslam Khan is a remarkable writer with a unique flair for language, and unlike her compatriot Fatima Bhutto who tries and largely fails to evoke a sense of place in the reader (and whose The Shadow of the Crescent Moon I reviewed last week) Khan successfully limns a vivid picture of the regions she writes about. Her writing is very sensual, which so much care taken to evoke senses of taste, touch, sound and the subtleties of sight:

“I tore the bread and left it on my tongue, letting the heat dissolve slowly. I added an apricot and rejoiced at my menu. Then I poured the topping: a finger of fresh honey. It tasted of flowers unknown to me, flowers vaguely aquatic. Like honey from the bottom of the lake. No one alive had ever touched the bottom, yet here was proof of life in those depths. Next I peeled a roasted potato with my teeth, telling Irfan that part of the thrill of being away from home was mixing dessert with vegetables.” (p. 70)

However, the intricacy of Khan’s language, and her eye for minute detail, can sometimes get in the way of all else that is necessary for the development of a novel. I felt the same about her 2003 novel Trespassing, which got so caught up in the form of the telling that what was being told seemed to slip away. I was completely sucked into Thinner Than Skin until the pivotal tragedy occurred. After this point the word games detracted from what should have been given precedence, the fallout of the event on the psychologies of the characters.

I like Uzma Aslam Khan’s work, and I think she represents some of the best Pakistani literary talent of the moment, comparable to British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam. But I think her ability to move between the micro and the macro is flawed. Thinner Than Skin is her fourth novel, and I do think it shows improvement from her previous novels, so hopefully there is a fifth in the pipeline that will come nearer to perfecting this balance.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Fatima Bhutto (2013)

Shadow of the Crescent Moon
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, by Fatima Bhutto. New Delhi: Penguin, 2013. (Borrowed copy)

Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an interesting but disappointing book, set in a part of South Asia not normally given much time in English-language fiction. It follows three brothers in Mir Ali, a small town in Afghanistan-bordering Waziristan, over the course of an Eid morning. It not only follows their activities on this one morning, but delves into their pasts: one brother was naively involved in informing on his former neighbours while studying in the US; another lost his son in a Taliban attack on a hospital, driving his wife mad; and the other is involved in tumultuous student politics which, like in most of South Asia, is not the rather insular and tame activity that western-based readers might assume. The account of the separatist activities in the Waziristan region is the most interesting part of the novel. The characters feel alienated from the Pakistani nation, and the heavy-handedness of the army (a South Asian issue encountered again and again) leads them always closer to affinity with their Afghan neighbours.

Bhutto’s prose is earnest in a manner that is distinctly Pakistani–or at least, distinct to Pakistani writing in English. It is reminiscent, to some degree, of the writing of her compatriots Uzma Aslam Khan and Nadeem Aslam, though with less of the ornamental flourishes that make those other writers beautiful, and connected to Urdu literary traditions. In fact, Bhutto’s writing is verging on flat at times, not elaborating on descriptions of people and place necessary to evoke strong images of a place that, realistically, most of her readers will have little first-hand knowledge of.

Following the lives of three brothers, and the women in their lives, as it does, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon packs a lot into a relatively short book (230 pages). The jumping between characters, places and times is not disconcerting so much as alienating: it takes a long time for the strands to come together, and when they do, the result is quite underwhelming. Non-linear, circuitous or fragmented narrative structures often seem to be used when a story lacks some other crucial aspects, such as character development or subtle explorations of shades of grey (Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed is a case in point). Unfortunately, this is also the case in The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.

I like fiction with a strong political edge. It would be impossible to enjoy South Asian, and especially Pakistani, fiction without an inclination towards this type of writing. However, I think Fatima Bhutto is in a difficult position. Granddaughter of executed Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and niece of assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Fatima has a lot of insight into the machinations of Pakistani politics. But her writing can come across as a political tract, not an attractive feature for fiction. Fiction with strong political messages is best when these messages are subtle, weaving amongst nuanced character development, plot, setting… While an author cannot be solely blamed/credited for the titles of their works, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is the first indication that this novel is a blatant critique of the concept of the Pakistani nation. Such critiques should be encouraged, but I wonder whether the novel is the right genre for Bhutto. But, this is a debut novel from a young writer (she is only 31), so it will be interesting to see whether she can hone her enormous knowledge, insights and passion into more nuanced fiction in the future.

This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh (2013)

My review of This Side, That Side has just been published in Kitaab.

this-side-that-side

This is an ambitious and innovative production but, perhaps ironically for a collection clearly based around a single theme, lacking in clarity and purpose, says Elen Turner.

This book represents an ambitious project: to tell stories of the Partition of India through graphic narratives. It contains twenty-eight short pieces on different aspects of the Partition in 1947, from various locations. Present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all represented, and while most of the texts were originally written in English, a number have been translated from Urdu, Hindi and Bangla. The majority of entries are collaborations between a writer and an illustrator/artist, often in different locations, particularly across national borders.

Read the rest of the review here.

Kitaab review: Brahma Dreaming

My review of Brahma Dreaming, written by John Jackson and illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini has just been published by Kitaab.

bd-cover

Tales of Indian gods told with European art-inspired illustrations erase the Indian feel from this otherwise beautiful and magnificent production, says Elen Turner.

Read the rest of the review here.