Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book review: The Blind Man's Garden

I was up late last night, reading. That's not so unusual, although the older I get, the less often it seems to happen. What is unusual is the aftershock of the book I was reading. It took a night's sleep for it all to sink in, I guess.

Three weeks ago, I found Nadeem Aslam's The Blind Man's Garden (Random House 2013, ISBN 978-0-385-67797-4) at my local library. I started reading right away, but several other books took precedence, probably because they were more cheerful. I found Aslam's book a tough read, probably because my world is anything but violent and chaotic since I live in a country that isn't as "heartbroken and sorrowful" as Pakistan and Afghanistan after 9/11.

More often than not, when I start a book and set it down to read others, it returns to the library unfinished. But after reading just a few pages and setting The Blind Man's Garden aside for almost three weeks, I had to return to it; Aslam's prose is that incredible. I can't quite describe his way with words, but perhaps it is enough to say that he has the eye of one who loves nature, and his descriptions are full of wonder whether he is describing a siege or a night sky. The added bonus is that the story's plot carried enough twists and turns that I didn't want to put it down. I've been up late three nights in a row.

The Blind Man's Garden tells the fictional but believable story of a family in Heer, Pakistan, and their struggles to live as good Muslims in a place caught up in the radicalization of Islam that coincides with the American involvement in Afghanistan. The story's characters reveal many different facets of a society mired in conflict, propaganda, and hysteria: Rohan, the patriarch and former school headmaster has no choice as his life's work is made into an academy for teaching boys to be terrorists; his son Jeo secretly heads into Afghanistan to aid civilians in the war zone with the aid of his foster brother, Mikal, and they meet the Taliban sooner than they expect with disastrous results; and Naheed, Jeo's wife, and her mother, Tara, expose day-to-day challenges in countries where the lack of women's rights is a given. Even the secondary characters will stay with me: the fakir who roams the countryside wearing a heavy load of chain links representing people's prayers, the Catholic priest who operates a school in a country increasingly antagonistic toward Christians, and the young woman with a snow leopard cub and her brother.

The book is clearly written for a western audience, giving insight into a society with which a North American like me has little experience. If these characters and their stories weren't enough to provoke thought, the tale is one of hard-fought redemption, which is one of my favourite themes in literature. I finished the book late last night, and it is only this morning that my eyes are misting over with its harsh beauty. I'd like to read parts of it again, but it has to go back to the library today.

From the flyleaf: "In language as lyrical as it is piercing, in scenes at once beautiful and harrowing, The Blind Man's Garden unflinchingly describes a crucially contemporary yet timeless world in which the line between enemy and ally is indistinct, and where the desire to return home burns brightest of all."

I can't say it better than that. If you're looking for a book to read, I recommend this one.

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