Book Group: Arifa Akbar reviews the July book, Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Subtle portrait of a secretive people
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Dealing with honour killings, religiously motivated bounty-hunters, wife-beatings and the forced marriages of girls to their first cousins, the book could have run the risk of presenting us with a clichéd and oversimplified picture of Asian Britain, which is teetering all too recognisably on the brink of a crisis against an unwelcoming, racist landscape. But Aslam's intimate characterisation of family members coming to terms with the double murders makes it one of the most original and penetrating pieces of writing about an Asian underclass I have read.

He paints an audacious and unpatronising picture of the extremities of this secretive, close-knit community. It is so convincing that we could begin to see how social pressure weighing down on the parents of the murdered Chanda forces them to condone the so-called Islamic retribution meted out to their daughter.

The central figure, Shames, is a convincing modern Asian caught in the no-man's land between white community racism and the brutal cultural practices of his "own people". His wife, Kaukab, practises Islam with an unquestioning devotion. But through Aslam's skill at bringing her tortured inner life and estrangement from her Westernised children to life, she becomes complex and vulnerable to the reader.

The only possible criticism of this book would be its unrelenting bleakness and the lack of redemption of its characters. We find them in different states of despair at the beginning, crying out against a religion that they feel brutalises them, and that is where we leave them. The hopeless, uncompromising message of the book seems to be that every character is compelled to love but, in this world must be punished for doing so.

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