Faber & Faber, £10.99. Order for £9.89 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
In the Orchard, the Swallows, By Peter Hobbs
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Tuesday 24 January 2012
In the mountain foothills of northern Pakistan, near the snow-capped Afghan passes with their "fluid and unmarked" borders, a teenage boy tends his family's pomegranate orchard. One day, in the market, he falls in love with the daughter of a local politician. After a wedding party, the pair meet alone among the fruit trees. Discovered, the narrator of Peter Hobbs's second novel is taken to the bigwig's house for a beating – but, fatefully, strikes the father back.
Brutalised, tortured, flung into jail to rot, the boy "had been put in prison, not to be punished, but to be forgotten". After an equally capricious release, he returns after 15 harrowing years to his home village: a half-remembered "shadow", hosted by a kindly poet and "saviour" named Abbas. Now almost 30, he recounts his tentative recovery of health and strength, a slow healing punctuated by ghastly flashbacks to his prison torments.
Abbas's paradise-like garden, with its roses and breezes, proves "the equal of any of the medicines I had been given". The survivor's unshakeable love for the girl Saba leads to dreams of a reunion. Yet "suffering has inscribed patterns of thought deep into my mind". For all the step-by-step progress of his bodily restoration, "some of the damage will not heal".
In this tender, graceful but devastating addition to the canon of prison literature, Hobbs shares with other recent writers a preoccupation with the psychological residues of the cell as much as with the physical anguish of life behind a lock. As measured in its tread as the halting strolls of its frail narrator, Hobbs's novel mimics the rhythms of confinement, and convalescence, as it slows down time and perception. This leads to moments of bathos, but, much more often, Hobbs's gravely luminous prose delivers scenes of breath-catching beauty – or horror.
Given the Pakistani setting, and the echoes of great events as 9/11 leads to war, terrorism and the crossing of those blurry borders by both "armies" and "ideas", some readers might expect a more directly topical book. Hobbs, however, keeps history on the margins as his report from the depths of loneliness and fear concludes with a fragile harvest of hope.
Arts & Ents blogs
Owen Howells is a DJ/producer who grew up in Australia but was born in the UK. He came back to the U...
Fancy seeing a play about serial killers? How about inviting a funeral director into your home for a...
There are a good many moments in the second episode of this psychological thriller that deserve refl...
Coronation Street triumphs over EastEnders at British Soap Awards 2013
The Freemasons' Code: Dan Brown reveals the message that told him the door to the lodge is open
Archaeologists uncover nearly 5,000 cave paintings in Burgos, Mexico
Lord of the Sings: Sir Christopher Lee, 91, to release heavy metal album
Film review: The Hangover Part III (15)
- 1 Pope Francis: Being an atheist is alright as long as you do good
- 2 Man and woman arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder victim of Woolwich machete attack, named as Drummer Lee Rigby
- 3 'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Horrific attack brings terror to London’s streets
- 4 Archaeologists uncover nearly 5,000 cave paintings in Burgos, Mexico
- 5 Lord of the Sings: Sir Christopher Lee, 91, to release heavy metal album
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.