December 10, 2012 by markstani
Layered with prose every bit as lush and verdant as the glacial landscapes it describes, Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner-Than-Skin (pub Clockroot Books (US)) is a thick, intense and richly rewarding novel set in the precipitous heart of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Northern Areas.
Ostensibly, it is a love story about a young Pakistani man, now living in the US, and his girlfriend, of German-Pakistani parentage, and their mutual desire to travel ‘home’ to immerse themselves in the breaktaking beauty of the mountains.
It is also – and forgive me for copying from the publishers’ notes here, but there really is no better way of putting it – ‘a love letter to the wilds of northern Pakistan, to glaciers, to the old Silk Road, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people in the northern territories, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans come together to trade.’
In a narrative soaked with the myths and legends of the land, Khan carefully unfurls two strands of her story: a first-person account from Nadir’s perspective as he consumes himself with concerns over his trip and his relationship with Farhana; and a third-person tale revolving around Maryam, a wife and mother in a community of nomadic herders who make seasonal journeys from the lowland pastures to the mountains to graze their livestock.
Tragedy will soon fuse these two strands together, the description of which is as gut-wrenching as they come. Khan’s prose is, in fact, scattered with moments to make you gasp: an illicit tryst above a madresseh, where ‘she pulled him into a room high above the minarets that seemed to point at the fighter jets, cursing them to hell’; an unforgettable account of an ancient ritual involving the mating of two glaciers; or this passage about the tempestuous relationship between two mountains:
Apparently, people believed that on days when the mountain appeared – the one that only looked liked Nanga Parbat, but could not have been – the Queen’s snow melted even faster, due either to her rage at having her beauty overshadowed, or her excitement at beholding her lover. And on such days his snow also melted faster, due either to his rage at having his beauty uncloaked – whose eyes were worthy enough? – or his triumph at beholding the Queen’s ferment. Whatever the reason, the lake that day had a strong tide.
Just as the clumsy naivety of Nadir and Farhana places their safety in question, so Maryam’s way of life, increasingly challenged by local officials, comes under a new threat: jihadism is on the rise, there are bombings in the city and police and armed forces are convinced their valley hides its culprit; at the same time, hajis who ‘wore their skullcaps as though they were horns’ are seeking new recruits among the community’s young men.
It is against this inflammatory backdrop that Nadir and Farhana, still a broadly likeable pair, blunder along, Nadir consumed – almost tiresomely so – with every nuance of his exchanges with Farhana; Farhana intent on embracing (and yet ignorant of) local custom; their Pakistani friend Irhan troubled by the realisation that his project to bring drinking water to a community teetering on the edge of a growing glacier may be futile: their situation, taken as a whole, perhaps presenting an allegory of the whole imperialist notion of West knowing best, when in fact its heavy-handed intervention only serves to make local lives more hellish.
Burdened by these passages of introspection, the pace of ‘Thinner Than Skin’ does get a little sluggish at times, the constant chronological to-ing and fro-ing needing a little unpicking, the complex plot ushering along. But these frustrations pale against the book’s broader context, and certainly do not stem from a desire for brevity, for this is what it is: a story spun out over thousands of Silk Road miles, through borderless states sustained by centuries of trade.
‘Thinner Than Skin’ is a gorgeous book that rewards persistence. It is published in Asia and Canada by Harper Collins, and the US by Clockroot Boots. Perplexingly, UK rights are yet to be claimed. It can surely only be a matter of time.