Book Group: Your views on the July book - Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Funny, truthful, sad, illuminating, disjointed... a picture of immigrant life
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The Independent Culture

I reckon this is the first book to have provoked a discussion in any form about the merits of a passage featuring "semen throwing". Jellyfeeble says that she "could have done without it" in an otherwise "beautiful, descriptive and evocative" work. Not so, says Mo245: "I disagree that we could have done without the semen-flinging scene. I appreciate that it is distasteful, and I was equally as shocked. But I think that was the point, that the son was showing his utter contempt for his parents at that point." Well, it's one method of showing "utter contempt", but I suppose only to be resorted to when you've thrown everything else at the object of your disdain.

What else did we like about the novel? Well, there's its topicality. According to LJ2026: "Assault, gossip, affairs, family feuds, murder, allusions to drug dealing... as the story progressed, I felt like I was taking part in a soap opera. Seriously though, this was a beautifully written book, although at times disturbing.

"In light of recent events, it was also timely, demonstrating not only the divide between cultures but also the clashes within a culture. Compared with the last couple of book choices, the pace was more measured, which allowed fuller development of the characters. I loved the descriptive elements of the animals and plants as this created a sense of magical realism."

Ramblingsid, getting straight to the point, noted the political context: "What comes across most of all to me is the sense of the isolation of the Pakistani community in the UK. So far non-immigrant society has hardly featured and when it does it is usually in a threatening manner".

OliviaDW was also struck by this view of Britain. "It was as real education into another (sometimes shocking) culture (and quite pertinent given events of 7 July in London). The regard for females in particular was eye-opening, at times anger inducing, and at other times very sad - so very emotive! I did think the author had little good to say about the culture and religion. This was perhaps countered with tales of racism from Western society but it wasn't an equal balance (not that it had to be)."

However, and whatever the politics, the flora and fauna, the highly styled prose and the unusual structure of this work didn't always appeal. Even Mo245 seems to have had enough of it after her initially warm feelings: "Not a book for everyone, as the very beautiful language will put some off, but I would rate it 4/5. It loses for me in the fascination for moths and butterflies, which I just don't share on any level, and in the last two chapters. I just felt they were unnecessary postscripts.

"Perhaps I am so used to the format where all the subplots are wrapped up before the conclusion of the main story, or are simply left to the imagination, that I find it jars slightly to continue to follow a subplot, however briefly."

Too much lepidoptera? Seems so. OliviaDW agreed: "I thought there was too much time spent on moths and butterflies, and while understanding that the author was comparing them to the characters (fragile, attracted to flames/danger/death) I found myself thinking these bits should have been edited down more."

Shirleylizsm was the most downbeat: " I found the storyline disjointed and felt the author got carried away with some of his descriptions. I was interested in the details of cultural differences but felt they interfered rather with the storyline and weren't always relevant. I seem to be the only one who isn't totally impressed with the story - I'm not trying to be different on purpose!"

Nothing wrong with that, Shirley, and you're not that isolated, as those other comments show.

Despite the problems some readers had with the "heavy" writing, there is a sense in the forum that our book-group members mostly did care about what happened to the characters.

OliviaDW: "I liked the style at the end when it was describing the events leading to Jugnu and Chadra's murders, and how different people were brought into the story and their version of events told. Things were tied up and questions answered, how they had died, what happened to the illegal immigrants, and what had become of Suraya (although her story wasn't completed - but this equally fitted with the theme of 'fate'). I found the names hard to remember."

Jellyfeeble, too: "I do feel desperately sorry for Kaukab, who seems to be trapped. As a cleric's daughter she follows the teachings rigidly, but the men in her life do not. She is like one of the moths described. The scene where Shamas puts his hand on her arm, and she thinks he wants sex, is in turn funny, truthful and very sad."

If Nadeem Aslam happened to pop on to the forum he would be pleased to see the verdicts offered by our critics. Glynhagget found it "a little too much like Teach Yourself Islam" for his liking, but it was still a "largely successful attempt to use plausible love stories, backed up by believable characterisation and plot, to discuss the differences and similarities between religions, cultures and generations".

OliviaDW spoke for most and put things succinctly when she summed up Maps for Lost Lovers as "sad, emotive, educational." They're already looking forward to Aslam's next, post-7/7, work.