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

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project