Nadeem Aslam
Maps For Lost Lovers

By Robin Norton-Hale

Nadeem Aslam's second novel Maps For Lost Lovers has just won a place on the Booker Prize longlist, after more than 10 years in the writing. The judges could have been forgiven for simply rewarding a lesson in perseverance – this was clearly an extreme case of the 'difficult second novel' syndrome with which only Donna Tartt's The Llttle Friend can compete in recent years. But if Maps wins a few more readers as a result of the publicity surrounding its difficult conception, they won't be disappointed. Just the right side of overwritten, this is a beautiful and angry book that deserves a wide audience.

In one respect, the length of time it took aslam to complete Maps is of particular relevance. The teachings of Islam – which are the catalyst for every major event in the novel – are regarded with a great deal more interest (and in many cases, suspicion) by a British audience than they were 11 years ago. It is difficult in the current climate to see aslam's choice of subject – the murder of a British Pakistani girl to protect her family's 'honour' – as anything other than overtly political. It is also impossible to imagine any non-Muslim writing such a devastating indictment of the religion without being accused of Islamophobia and racism.

At times Aslam is so determined to make his point that I balked at the horrors visited upon his characters in the name of Islam – not so much at the events themselves, but that they should happen with such frequency in a small town in the Midlands.

It is not the murders and beatings that make the most lasting impression, though, but the wrenches which occur as the older generation feel they are losing their children to a way of life that is not only alien, but considered the path to damnation. Kaukab, the devout mother, puts 'holy salt' (actually a bromide) in her son's food to calm his wild behaviour, while her daughter lies to protect her from the reality of the violent arranged marriage she has fled. Trying to bring up both children to be good Muslims, Kaukab drives them away – the son in horror when he thinks his mother has been deliberately drugging him, the daughter accused of callously abandoning a loving husband once too often.

These and other misunderstandings accumulate to break up family units which the more traditional members of the community proudly consider stronger and more supportive than their British counterparts. The insidious loneliness and isolation that follows, especially for the women who cling to their prescribed roles despite having the most to gain from abandoning them, is painfully rendered.

Fortunately – and despite Aslam's anger – this feels like an accidentally political novel. He has told interviewers that he didn't know about 9/11 until a week later, but his point seemed to be more about how absorbed he was in his work rather than about his ignorance of Islamic fundamentalist actions. This innocence is there in the writing too – the dedication of the book is to his father, who 'told me always to write about love'. And despite the bleakness, on one level Maps is a series of love stories. The problem is that in the world Aslam describes, blocked at every turn by an inflexible and inhuman religion, even love can't bring any of the characters happiness.
Eugenie Maritz posted 2 November 2007 (08:12:16)
This is truly one of the most wonderful books I have ever had the privilege to experience.The author has a superior insight into the fragile emotions and motivations of the human race. The sensitive and superb play with words is astounding and is a monument for ever to the eleven years he dedicated to it. This work of love and compassion stands for the art of writing at its very best. Thank you Nadeem, for enriching my life by sharing your masterpiece with me and allowing me to tread on the "bridges of glass".
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