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.