Perhaps beginnings are meant to be disorientating sometimes. For many pages of Mohammed Hanif’s second novel I cannot get my bearings and start to worry that, far from finding my way into the dense narrative, I am becoming more and more lost.
I fret about what the problem might be. Is it overwritten? The earthiness of the description of downtown Karachi is glorious, but I begin to panic that if there are many more phrases such as ‘breasts like abandoned puppies’ I will get squeamish and miss the point.
There are pages and pages where nearly everything is throbbing or sweating or getting punched, eaten, licked, raped or shot to pieces. There are a lot of blood, guts and fleshy bits. I can barely think for the din of hungry stomachs rumbling. If this were a film, there would be long lingering shots of the beads of sweat on people’s upper lips, as well as sudden, apparently deeply significant close-ups of sweaty armpits.
And then Hanif hits you with this: during a discussion of death, one character tells another that dying from TB is like a fine silk shawl being dragged through a thorn bush. ‘It leaves their soul in shreds.’Later in the book, he repeats the metaphor, varies it slightly and, in the process, nails it: the soul leaving the body is like a fine silk shawl being dragged through a thorn bush.
From that point I am so gripped by what the book is trying to tell me that I cannot put it down. I am on a flight from Spain and I don’t notice when the plane lands at Gatwick. When they try to empty the plane I am glued to my seat, reading, lost, but in a good way.