The “honour killing” of two unmarried lovers casts long shadows over several related lives, in a second novel by the Pakistani-born British author.
Following Aslam’s debut (Season of the Rainbirds, 1993) by so many years, this is an understandably painstakingly crafted exploration of cultural conflict, set in a Pakistani enclave (Dasht-e-Tanhaii, meaning, roughly, “desert of solitude”) within an unnamed English town. The victims of the aforementioned crime are Jugnu, a lepidopterist, and Chanda, the thrice-married, twice-divorced sister of middle-aged protagonist Shamas. A failed poet now employed as a social worker, Shamas offers a mediating voice between the commands of Islamic law (literally obeyed by Chanda’s brothers, who killed her and Jugnu to punish their immorality) and the less stringent imperatives of contemporary British culture. A further contrast exists between the well-meaning Shamas and (the tale’s other major figure) his wife Kaukab, a rigorously devout Muslim for whom sexual irregularity is only one of numerous “sins” subject to the harshest draconian penalties. Thus does Aslam’s lovely title embrace not only the ill-fated couple and Kaukab and Shamas, but also the latter couple’s three adult children: notably, their daughter Suraya, divorced in an irrational moment by her drunken husband, and disallowed from reuniting with him, without first marrying, then divorcing another man. The great and genuine strength here is the fairness with which Aslam presents all viewpoints (his portrayal of Kaukab, a woman of very real principle nevertheless tormented by the beliefs she holds with utmost sincerity, is a particular triumph). But Aslam overstates and sentimentalizes Shamas’s selfless saintly decency, and drowns the story in a gratuitously exotic and sensuous hothouse atmosphere evoked by ludicrously strained imagery (during oral sex, a woman’s body is “as eloquent as weather”; roses die, “each round rosehip with its tall crown of long hairy sepals looking as though a berry has fused with a grasshopper”).
Often exquisite; too often, too much of a good thing.