The Blind Man's Garden, By Nadeem Aslam Faber and Faber £18.99

This poetic but devastating novel about Islamic extremism and the conflict in Afghanistan has the authenticity of lived experience

Once or twice a year, a book stuns me. Nadeem Aslam's fourth novel, The Blind Man's Garden, has done just that. My expectations were high: Aslam has won a clutch of prizes. But the power of this extraordinary novel is still jarring.

Aslam was born in Pakistan and lived there until he was 14. He has travelled extensively in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the experience imbues his depictions of life there with veracity. The Blind Man's Garden, like his third novel, The Wasted Vigil, focuses on Afghanistan's recent history.

It is October 2001. Jeo and his foster brother leave their home in Pakistan to travel to Afghanistan, to help casualties of the new conflict between the Taliban and West. However, they are unwittingly sold to the Taliban, and from there, fall into the hell of war.

From the first, it is obvious that this is not an ordinary war novel. Rich imagery, sage reflections, and immaculate prose are evident on every page. In the first paragraph, Rohan gazes at his house, lit by candles. "Wounds are said to emit light ... as the candles burn Rohan thinks of each flame as an injury somewhere in his house." This is not empty symbolism; the wounds soon become apparent.

As in The Wasted Vigil, Aslam's depiction of the horror inflicted by fundamentalist Islam on its own, especially women, is unflinching. A female character muses that every day she hears of women being murdered or disfigured in the name of "honour". Raped women can only press charges if there are four male witnesses willing to testify. If there aren't, the woman may herself be punished. Women who have lost family are fearful of visiting the graves, because "guardians of decency" (sadly, often female), beat them.

Aslam paints a chilling picture of Pakistan's government and army colluding with terrorism. The pressure on young men to become jihadists is illuminated. Piety discounts are offered for jihadists buying guns. Radicals in Pakistan urge residents to jihad. Young boys with no experience of war are sold to the Taliban and duly slaughtered.

Despite the atrocities Aslam depicts, his view on Islam is nuanced. He enumerates achievements of peaceful Muslims: trigonometry in Mecca, paper in Cordoba, science in Cairo, a house of wisdom in Baghdad. Rohan is a good man who regrets his own zealous dedication to Islam in the past. Aslam also shows us how difficult life is for ordinary people in Pakistan. The police are often corrupt. When Jeo's wife disappears, they refuse to investigate and declare that, on return, the girl will be prosecuted unless they are paid. Medicine, too, is expensive and morally bankrupt: a man considers selling a kidney to procure the ransom for his son's return.

Nor is the ardent pursuit of terrorists by the Americans exempt from criticism. Passages set in a military prison deliver a right hook that leaves one reeling. Afghan warlords were paid for every Taliban member handed over, so civilians as well as terrorists were sold, detained and subjected to inhumane Guantanamo-style treatment. Sleep deprivation, manacles, incarceration, interrogation, mind games and verbal abuse are meted out to all prisoners: innocence is difficult to prove when there is a presumption of guilt.

Yet despite the ugliness of war, this book glows with a radiant beauty. The natural world almost transcends the atrocities, so sensuously is it described. There is something mellifluous, almost melodic, about the gently poetic descriptions of wildlife, where "hibiscus blossom sway on the vine like birds", or fireflies are "blazing jewels". The metaphors are potent, the birds caught by a bird-catcher's snares and the ant stuck in a shallow groove where the word Allah has been carved on a surface representing those trapped in the prison of fundamentalism. Striking synaesthesia ("The air is cold and blue") and effortless similes ("winter will arrive soon, like a blade opening") shine.

The construction is meticulous, with deft symmetries: Rohan's late wife painted the life in their garden, yet with cruel irony, Rohan's blindness robs him of this comfort. Rohan argued with his wife over his adherence to Islamic edicts, but he realises her more secular approach, far from being apostasy, was more humane. Rohan's great-grandfather raised horses and supported the British during the Mutiny of 1857, and Rohan in turn is appalled by 9/11. As Jeo travels to Afghanistan, the nefarious fundamentalist who sold him to the Taliban reads a passage about horses in the Koran.

The poignancy is gut-wrenching. Loss – of sight, of loved ones – is conveyed with deep pathos. When Rohan's sight has failed, he can conjure up the colour red by touching a warm surface; stars by holding his hand out in the rain.

Tiny flaws include a preponderance of coincidences and one clause too many in an otherwise stunning sentence containing four commas on page 35. Man Booker judges: don't miss this.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?