British writer Hobbs (The Short Day Dying, 2006, etc.) travels to Pakistan at the turn of the 21st century to broodingly explore a society in thrall to ancient customs.
Hobbs’ unnamed narrator, just released from jail after 15 years, returns to his village to find his family gone, the orchard his father carefully cultivated now neglected by the new owners. We learn that the orchard was the scene of his undoing as his memories unfold in a notebook addressed to his long-ago love, Saba. Smitten by the lovely girl he sees in the town market, the boy seizes his chance when she attends a neighbor’s wedding to invite her into the orchard, where they sit until dawn. Though their evening is innocent, and he is only 14, an angry encounter with her politically powerful father leads to his arrest and imprisonment. While recuperating in the home of a compassionate poet who took him in after his release, he writes to Saba of the years of torture he endured. “Above all else, the prison taught me that there are evil men in the world,” he tells her. Only the swallows he glimpsed from the prison yard reminded him of the joy he once felt in his love for her, a love that remains in “this broken form” that “belongs to a much older man.” It’s all rather abstract, though Hobbs’ prose is as gorgeous as ever. Wonderful, lyrical physical descriptions—of dancing with his father in the orchard, of his poet friend’s walled garden, of eating a ripe pomegranate—have the unfortunate effect of making the central love story seem even more artificial. We see Saba only through the narrator’s eyes as an idealized icon, and the fablelike ending reinforces a sense of unreality that hobbles this well-intentioned but flawed effort to imaginatively enter a foreign world.
Too studied and not entirely convincing though also sensitive, reflective and beautifully written: The talented Hobbs will do better next time.