After the success of The Geometry of God and Trespassing, I expected Uzma Aslam Khan to build further on her reputation as one of the eminent novelists chronicling the lives of contemporary Pakistanis but this novel has come as a disappointment.It started well enough, with two lead characters, Nadir and Farhana the former a Pakistani in the United States struggling to build a life of promise in a country his parents had sent him to study and the latter, a mix raced Pakistani German who wants to discover the Pakistani side of her identity by returning to Pakistan which is now gripped in turmoil Through their uneasy love we see the uneasy love Pakistanis carry for their homeland, which they have many reasons to despair for and leave behind And the promise of the new lands of the West, which, despite it glitter and glory, cannot fully satisfy the needs of those who have shunned their homelands.Parallel to it runs the story of Maryam and her family who are herders for generations Through them the author has painted a grim picture of the situation the locals of the mountainous north of Pakistan have found themselves in Hemmed in by all sides in a conflict that spills across borders trouble in Xinjiang, violence in Central Asian states, perennial instability in Afghanistan, oppression in Kashmir all this spills into the once peaceful mountainous regions of Pakistan where the state and its rebels fight out each other at the cost of the local people The fates of Nadir and Farhana get entwined with that of Maryam and her family when an accident happens during their visit of discovery to the Northern Areas They are sucked into a conflict which is as much personal as it is public and political.Our story stalls after the accident, the manner in which the author shows both parties dealing with the accident isvery lacking There are lots of monologues the characters address to themselves, that do little but confuse the reader Maryam s story and the characters that populate her world, in my view, do not talk and behave as northern mountain people do An air mystery surrounds Maryam s family which is not dealt with cleverly She is also depicted as following some strange pagan cult, even though they are clearly shown to be Muslims, albeit holding on to some ancient mountain rituals for which they get plenty of scorn from Muslims who purport to follow a purist form of Islam Bluntly put, the writing on Maryam s family is not intelligent it has little to hold your attention it is like a long and repetitive ramble.The last part of the novel did not satisfy me The thread of the plot is lost after the accident takes place From that point on the story only drags and ends abruptly and nonsensically in yet another accident.I vacillated between giving it two stars and three stars If I had given it two stars, this would have been quite harsh of me if I had awarded it three, this would have meant I liked it than I had So I settle for 50 50 I rate this novel as halfway between acceptance a 2.5 stars out of 5. Whenever I come across an English novel about Pakistan and terrorism, I dread a sensationalist generalisation of Pakistani society for a foreign audience Although I began Thinner than Skin with the same sense of foreboding, I found myself captivated by the narrative just a few pages into the book.Far from confirming my misgivings, Thinner than Skin sketches a rich portrait of the indigenous culture of northern Pakistan, and highlights the plight of ordinary people in a society in flux The lives of three individuals a photographer, a pagan woman and a nomad are transformed in the setting of Northwest Pakistan a region of rugged, untouched natural beauty punctured by the wounds of war and terrorism The plot is made up of three stories the story of Nadir, a Pakistani photographer in America who is romantically engaged with a Pakistani German girl, Farhanna, the story of Maryam and her family from the nomad tribe of Gujjar as they struggle to hold on to their customs in a world that is rapidly changing, and finally the story of Ghafoor, man who chooses the life of a wandering tradesman over that of a nomad.As Nadir prepares his journey to Pakistan, he is advised to forgo his passion for aesthetics and nature in photography Instead, he is told Show us the dirt The misery Fed with stereotypical images of Pakistan, Nadir is apprehensive but Farhana wistfully longs to return to the country of her origin When the couple finally visits Kaghan valley with their friends, Irfan, a widower, and Wes, an environmentalist who is fascinated by Pakistani glaciers, they encounter Maryam and her family a meeting that will alter their destinies.Uzma Aslam s prose is vivid, bringing to life the sensuous setting of the novel as well as the everyday rituals of village life Interwoven with folk legends and superstitious beliefs, Thinner than Skin moves between a narration of the present and the past, engaging the reader in the details of the plot and yet maintaining good dose of mystery Although the plot starts out brilliantly, I was disappointed to note that the story loses its vibrancy as it progresses and concludes rather abruptly.But these minor drawbacks aside, I found Thinner than Skin to be a compelling narrative and empathic portrait of a beautiful region destroyed by dark forces, and of the joys and tragedies of the individuals inhabiting it Published in Express Tribune Magazinehttp tribune.com.pk story 497463 bo In The Wilds Of Northern Pakistan, Where Glaciers Are Born Of Mating Ice, Two Young Lovers Shatter The Tenuous Peace Of A Nomadic CommunityThinner Than Skin Is A Riveting Novel About Identity And Belonging It S Also A Love Story Between A Young Pakistani Man Trying To Make His Way As Photographer In America, And The Daughter Of A Pakistani Father And German Mother Brought Up In The US, Who Wants To Return To A Country She S Never Seen Together They Make The Trip To Pakistan, Where A Chance Meeting With A Young Nomad Changes Their Lives, And The Lives Of Those Around Them, Forever The Novel Is Also 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 All Come Together To Trade In Pakistan, it was hard to know which tragedy to dwell on most.This book suffers from the problem of too much but not enough Uzma Aslam Khan takes on expats and citizens, city life and country life, fugitives and bombers, policemen and tree cutters, and mixes them all in with international politics, local politics, relationship politics And the result is a mess.That s not to say that the book is completely, ridiculously bad A bad book can be entertaining in its own frustrating ways Badly written characters, thin plotlines or ridiculous dialogue can be the source of much hysterical laughter, shared misery and the chance to give vent to one s sarcastic side It can be cathartic, the way picking on a scab can be This book doesn t even have the dignity to provide its readers with a good time Instead, it bores.The SummaryIt s hard to write a summary for a novel in which you had to struggle to keep your eyes open long enough to turn the page We have our eternally whiny, perpetually confused protagonist Nadir, a Pakistan photographer in American, and his half Pakistani American girlfriend Farhana who wants to go study glaciers in Northern Pakistan They are joined by Irfan, Nadir s childhood best friend and all purpose trip guide, and Wes, an American tagging along for the glacier study And along their trip, disaster strikes More characters join in there s a lot of grief and remonstration and thoughts of revenge I m sure it s poignant and devastating than I m making it sound, but I couldn t care less Not when five pages into the story I was ready to doze off Uzma Aslam Khan takes her time with the story, and a long, long time it is Sure, there are moments of stark, noticeable brilliance When the novel tackles memory or lost dreams or the strain that plagues Pakistanis and their lives, it sounds familiar and comforting Yes, you say This is how it is Rhetoric and reminiscences work well Fiction writing, in this case, really doesn t On any given day, the target would be a mosque and a hotel on another, a bus and a train The next, Chinese officials in Balochistan and Pakistani generals in Punjab Soon, it was just about everything except the two everyone resented most, the army on the ground, and the drones in the air, because you can t kill a drone, it s a drone And you can t kill an army, it s an army.The novel follows a quick fast forward, quick step back method of storytelling which jerks you back and forth at warp speed One second we are in Karachi, the other in America, next we are in Kaghan, and then suddenly we are back in Karachi Or this time in the Northern Mountains, climbing a glacier Back in America, lost in a desert Back again to Karachi, with a different conversation, among different people It s whip lash, and it s not fun to read The CharactersThe story follows multiple protagonists, from Nadir, a Pakistani man trying vainly to earn a living as a photographer in America, to Maryam, a herder s wife who migrates with her family to the northern plains on Pakistan during the summers, to Ghafoor, a man outcast from his own society who flits between the Chinese, American, Indian, the Uzbeks and Uyghars, the Armenians and Kashmiris to the Gujjars themselves, trying to find a place to fit in And not a single character manages to make a connection He did not know how to explain that it had been a while, a very long while indeed, since he felt he had a country He had tried to fight for it, once, this country that had never been his, as though by fighting for it, he might earn it, but this had only resulted in his own people telling him to leave.It s sad that the characters are so hit and miss, because the setting is a minefield waiting to be excavated Because the Northern areas of Pakistan, where we spend the majority of the story, are populated by multiple religions, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures There s gold to be found in terms of complex, multi dimensional characters, and while the story tries to tie them all together, ultimately it gets too confused and forgets what point it was trying to make It was after nine o clock but the market was still crammed and I heard languages spoken here than at an international airport I learned that some of the people milling around here had come from as far away as Andijaan and Jashgar, either with bales of cloth, or with no clothes except the ones on their backs.The Writing It took two years before the mare forgave her, and by then Kiran had learned that forgiveness was thinner than skin.The writing was what, ultimately, led to my most dominating thought being an average of fifteen mehs per page I yawned, I slumped down, I tried to keep the book straight as I struggled to keep reading I guess the nicest thing I could say about the writing is that it might win awards it has that kind of pretentious, put upon writing style that seems to attract critics in droves In the days since her return from the lake, it seemed she did not even have enough time to retreat into darkness to grieve Her sorrow was swiftly turning to fear for her remaining children, her remaining land, and also, for that palpitation in her chest, warning her of her remaining love for Ghafoor.The book stretches tension into the story, and then it stretches it too thin All through the narrative there s an idea that things are bad and they re going to get worse It induces discomfort, and not that kind where you wait in anticipation for times getting better It s the kind of discomfort that bothers because you simply want it to end, out of boredom than out of any actual distress One could argue that the crux of the story is in the anxiety that prevails over everything Everyone is falling apart, Nadir and Farhana are caught in a nightmare, Maryam weeps over her heartache, corrupt policemen and maulanas and tree fellers grab money and charge exorbitant rates Yes, yes and okay that s all true That s all valid But where s my compassion If you can t care enough to not fall asleep, then you don t care enough And this is where the writing fails The RecommendationThe story doesn t know what it wants to say, the character motivations are hard to understand, the genre is equally harder to pin down Were there threads of magic realism Or was that supposed to be allegorical Or a metaphor What does the flying owl or dead horse or single feather mean God knows Unless you re particular interested in trying to untangle the ethnicities and nationalities of inhabitants of Pakistan s northern areas, I suggest you give this one a miss I review Pakistani Fiction, and talk about Pakistani fiction, and want to talk to people who like to talk about fiction Pakistani and otherwise, take your pick To read this complete review, read reviews or just contact me so you can talk about books, check out my Blog or follow me on Twitter I ached upon finishing this book The writing is so glittering and tender The overwhelming effect is of deep heartache and longing And it builds Nadir Sheikh, a landscape photographer who lives in San Franciso, is tired of being told by the west to produce stereotypical images of Pakistan He must wow the world not with the assurance of grace He must wow the world with the assurance of horror He returns to his country, to the mountainous north, and now the book really soars Not only is the landscape described with amazing beauty, but we meet the strongest character in the book, Maryam, who belongs to a nomadic tribe that spends its summers in the grazing grounds around a lake Nadir, his annoying girlfriend Farhana, his friend Irfan, and Farhana s friend Wes, all cross a glacier to end up in the same place The plot thickens There is a terrible tragedy which haunts me still soon after which most writers would have ended the book Not Khan She wants us to climb back down the mountain with her characters, to confront consequences, and ask difficult questions What is belonging Whose land is it And most of all, who has the right to claim that any one can be saved The tradgedy occurs when Farhana tries to help a young girl of the nomadic tribe in a gesture that screams imperialist arrogance And Khan wants us to see imperialist arrogance in all its colors, and all its tragic outcomes.The book is divided into five sections and structured like a mountain you climb, you reach the top, you fall The top section, part 3, is Ghafoor s He is another member of the nomadic tribe, though he has left it to become a suitcase trader in China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan Khan s gift for combining stunning yet harsh geographies with harsh lifestyles that demand harsh choices really shine in these sections By the time you reach the book s end, you feel you have been floating and falling for a while The ride is hypnotic It isn t emotionally easy, even as the writing pulls you along And it is worth every minute A deeply mesmerizing book by a deep and powerful writer. One of the best books I ve read in a long long time.There is a crystalline sharpness to her prose and an urgency to her story that beguiles and haunts Her language burns in the same way that snowflakes do, or that honey burns your mouth There is a deep and familiar ache that spreads across the pages of this book and into its reader.Expert handling of the myriad politics class, race, religious, gender, international and personal and a stunning display of empathy and compassion for her unbearably human characters that is matched only by the portrayal of a landscape so raw and open it takes one s breath away. Layered with prose every bit as lush and verdant as the glacial landscapes it describes, Uzma Aslam Khan s Thinner Than Skin 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 a passage about the tempestuous relationship between two mountains.To read of this review, please visit my blog at Eleutherophobia. Pakistan has always been quite an interesting topic to me Despite being typecast as the new wild west , constantly embroiled in turmoil, corruption and strife in the media, one rarely learns about the amazing resilience and beauty of the country This is an exception to that rule.Following three completely different personalities Nadir, a Pakistani photographer, Maryam a Gurjar, and Ghafoor a nomadic merchant.The writing style in this novel is vivid and descriptive, constantly engaging yet encouraging a what happens next appeal I was discouraged to discover it ended too quickly and abruptly for my tastes and I do look forward to reading of Uzma Aslam Khan s work. There are plenty of ways to get and be lost in this world Because I have a poor sense of direction, I get lost easily Because I am drawn to novels by authors from locations and cultures distinct from my own, I often feel lost while I am reading The impact on me from Uzma Aslam Kahn s fourth novel was a vertigo of feeling lost, afraid, and anxious Thinner Than Skin opens with the meditation on her former life by a woman making the yearly journey from the plains to the highlands of summer Maryam walks along the shore of a lake with her daughter, a mare, a filly, three buffaloes, four goats, and numerous sheep Two mountain peaks, mist, and a wind that carries a sense of foreboding Maryam has a vision of a strange man Where is she I do not know Already in the first three pages I am lost as well as filled with Maryam s foreboding.I read on and meet Nadir and his girlfriend Farhana, sleeping in a cabin in a place called Kaghan Finally I find out they are in Northern Pakistan, having traveled from San Francisco Both are of Pakistani descent, their relationship is as rocky as a steep mountainside, and by the end of that chapter I know they are both doomed in some way because of their youth and self involvement Despite education and a certain amount of privilege, they are essentially clueless.I get to the end of the novel I have been all over a part of the world so foreign to me that even a map showing Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan as they relate to Afghanistan and Pakistan makes me feel lost The distance between Nadir and Maryam, in worldview, in emotional response, in human interaction, is so vast that though they are both Pakistani and human, they may as well be alien species to each other.After a terrible fatal accident for which Nadir and Farhana are responsible, the forces of tribal custom, terrorism, and nature pursue these two across a glacier, across a culture, to an outcome even doomed than I had foreseen at the beginning.Then comes the ending where the author leaves me, lost in Nadir s mind but found in Maryam s A trip in every sense of the word. Evocative, poetically written, Thinner Than Skin, weaves together questions of identity, the nation state, globalization, with landscapes, histories, and lingering questions about the current Great Game that is played along the borderlines of the ancient Silk Road.
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up mostly in Karachi, though my earliest years were nomadic two years in the Philippines, two in Japan, three in England It was in England, at age 6, that I wrote my first complete story, for which I was gifted a copy of Oscar Wilde s Fairy Tales I have it with me, still My novels are THE STORY OF NOBLE ROT TRESPASSING, shortlisted for the Commonweal
- 352 pages
- Thinner Than Skin
- Uzma Aslam Khan
- 28 July 2019 Uzma Aslam Khan