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.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Thailand beach murders: Thai PM suggests 'attractive' female tourists cannot expect to be safe wearing bikinis
- 2 Scottish independence: Five reasons Salmond is secretly hoping for a 'No' vote
- 3 Isis plan to 'behead random member of the public' in Sydney thwarted by Australian police
- 4 Scottish independence: Andy Murray backs Yes campaign in eleventh hour decision
- 5 Have you heard about the film Singapore has banned its people from watching? Well, you have now
Laurie Lee's Rosie: What is it like to inspire a writer's work and be immortalised forever on the page?
Metal detectors object to digs by Mackenzie Crook about ‘dysfunctional’ hobby in BBC4's 'Detectorists'
Doctor Who series 8: Time Heist pictures revealed ahead of episode 5
The Walking Dead season 5 air date, trailer and season 4 recap
Star Wars 7 leaked set photo of Adam Driver changes everything
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter