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In the Orchard, the Swallows, By Peter Hobbs
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
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.
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