Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Reading this book is like reading poetry. It is written in prose, yes, but prose worthy of Nabokov. There is a mystery at the center of the story, but this isn’t one to rush through to see whodunnit. With sentences filled with musical phrases such as “the xylophone jetty“ and “soft antlers of smoke rising from incense sticks”, it’s to be savored as a banquet.
Set in a community of Pakistani immigrants in England, we only know the town as Dasht-e-Tanhaii, (“the Desert of Loneliness”) . A young couple, Chandra and Jugnur, have disappeared and this mystery hovers at the edge of everything that happens. Next door is Jugnur’s brother, Shamas, a poet and community activist and his wife, Kaukab, who is religious to the point of rigidity. She has a thorny relationship with their grown children, who live elsewhere. A newly divorced woman, Suraya, arrives in town and becomes enmeshed in things. All of the personalities are distinct and expressively drawn. The entanglements are unrolled as a rich tapestry over a year between one snowy day and another.
This is a feminist novel written by a man and a book critical of Islam written by a Muslim. “It‘s as though Allah forgot there was women in the world when he made some of his laws, thinking only of men…”, one character says. Religious behavior is a central theme, but is not obviously commented upon, rather, Aslam lets events speak for themselves. Some of the incidents were shocking to me.
The immigrants are suspended between two worlds and the struggle to reconcile them felt fresh. I was pleased to learn new things, such as that Muslim angels are dressed in silk, brocade and turbans and have multi-colored wings. There was exotic food, peacocks in houses and enough butterflies to please Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Everything was described with such lyricism, that my emotions were heightened. The book would have been powerful in any case, describing what to most of us is a very unfamiliar culture and some frightening events. But the beauty of the language and the unfolding layers made it one of the most unforgettable novels I have ever read.
Knopf 2004 379 pp. ISBN 1-4000-4242-9