Bilal Tanweer, The Scatter Here is Too Great, book review: Gritty and at times harrowing


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The Independent Culture

“Ever seen a bullet-smashed windscreen? The hole at the centre throws a sharp, clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals. That’s the metaphor for my world, this city: broken, beautiful, and born of tremendous violence.”

Bilal Tanweer’s debut novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great, reads as a homage to Karachi: the “broken, beautiful city” he lived in until the age of 19. And broken it certainly seems.

A sprawling megalopolis on Pakistan’s south coast, Karachi has been plagued in recent years with political violence, social unrest and the threat of the Taliban; yet Tanweer conveys its paradoxical allure through the monologues of a set of anonymous narrators.

Anonymous in the sense that we never learn their names – we are only aware of the relationships they have and the lives they lead. Their stories are largely separate, and they are aware of each other only in passing. Yet their lives are intrinsically linked by a fateful bomb blast outside one of the city’s main railway stations: the boy and his father robbed on a bus; the cocksure teenager; an old communist poet; a middle-aged businessman whose relationship with his son is as complex as it was with his own father; a young boy in awe of his older sister; and a troubled journalist trying to make sense of it all.

One wonders if Tanweer uses this array of characters to try to represent the tiny fragments that make up the greater mosaic of life in this entropic urban space.

Owing to the book’s brevity, the characters are perhaps not as developed as they could be, but nevertheless, Tanweer shows an impressive range and an ability to write convincingly in the voice of each one. No matter how common these types of attack are becoming in Karachi and across the rest of Pakistan, the experiences of Tanweer’s characters show how unrelentingly traumatic they are.

There is no glamour here, no rose-tinted sentiment; it is gritty and at times harrowing.

The Scatter Here is Too Great at first appears to be a rudimentary collection of disparate tales rather than one consistent body of work – but its layers of complexity are revealed as the story develops. A pattern, no doubt, in keeping with the author’s own complicated relationship with this “broken, beautiful city” of his.

The Scatter Here is Too Great, By Bilal Tanweer (Jonathan Cape £14.99)