Saturday, February 23, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Thinner Than Skin

Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 23 Feb 2013
Author: Uzma Aslam Khan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal



Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of critically acclaimed, award winning books like Trespassing and Geometry of God. Her new novel, 'Thinner than Skin' goes off the beaten track for inspiration. A realm built upon incomprehensible layers of intrigue, violence, fairytales and legends provides the stage. People foraging for a lifeline become the props. And the inevitable soundtrack of radicalism now coursing through every fibre sets Pakistan’s modern heart to an ancient beat.

It is these paradoxes that bring its US-based protagonist, Nadir, along with a German-Pakistani girl, Farhana, on a trek from northern California to the Kaghan Valley. Wesley — the American in the background — is drawn to the mating glacier ritual, which is an actual thing. And their trusty ally/guide Irfan charts the course to their path of self-discovery past majestic mountains and ice encrusted lakes.

Their quest is a perfect pretext to call upon the splendour of the Northern Areas used here as a base camp for the appreciative visitors. Someone recently remarked about a certain Pakistani city that was easy to write about but difficult to live in. Pakistan may not be the easiest place to be these days but this bracing narrative manages to forge a connection with the land’s inimitable spirit with a few precision strokes. The surreptitious shadows shown in Nadir’s rearview mirror provide a frame of reference for the troubling cultural shifts and eroding freedoms.

The book delivers on its promise of a good adventure, using its arresting vision heavily seeped in local colours as leverage. But the author does not rely solely on these outside perspectives and delves deeper into the psyche of the land, bringing the nomads into the fold. Ghafoor and Maryam who pick up the threads, adding shades of ruthlessness to the random ripples of pathos, have intertwined destines with the quartet.

The split narrative coaxes these lonely sentiments to the fore, removing media-sanctioned distortions and allowing other perspectives room to manoeuvre. The author engages with the natives that bear witness to the altering landscape. ‘....the world had tipped unsteadily. It was not a reliable unsteadiness...that leads from pasture to plain, according to the season’s change. This motion had no rhythm. What it had was men in tanks and spies in plain clothes, all showing up at your door demanding to be placated with the sugar you were saving for your children...’.

The compassionate commentary uses the outlines of its uneasy backdrop to compose its heartfelt plea right after the silent denunciation. Using the voice of the indigenous people of the land gives wonderful clarity to the hazy silhouettes. Though her glistening prose illuminates the changing face of Pakistan, the afterglow exposes the debilitating depths and muffled cries.

There are three different strands running parallel: Nadir’s inner turmoil, the superstitious heart of the vale, and the grim ripples from one tragic mistake, each adding to the group’s growing sense of isolation. The shadows cast by the general air of mistrust intensify the trance-like state. While the ‘Queen of the Mountains’ gazes upon drifting wanderers with a chilling indifference, the breathtaking scenery asks for a moment of silence to acknowledge its savage streak. The book peddles its PG-15 imagery to stir up the crowd and takes a few jabs here and there at paranoia associated with the ‘epicentre of terrorism’ to provoke a few rounds of (mirthless) laughter.

The author’s spellbinding descriptions are wondrous to behold; at the same time the lingering sense of menace is hard to shake off. While it may not be easy to comprehend the land’s many moods — a fusion of proud traditions and fickle desires — it takes a really good listener to bring its inherent contradictions to life. Its disarming beauty and exotic contrasts aside, Thinner Than Skin acts as a beacon to these inhospitable looking shores. It has been nominated for Asia’s top literary prize — the Man Asian Literary Prize — and is available in bookstores now.

Update: Congratulations to the writer for winning the inaugural KLF Embassy of France prize 2014, Uzma seen below at the 5th Karachi Literature Award 2014 (7-9 Feb)

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