“The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam – review

When I write a book review I normally jump straight in a couple of hours or so after I’ve finished reading; I like to have the emotional impact of a novel still alive and kicking in order for me to best share that reaction with others.  This time round things were quite different.  The sensations I got from this book were so intense that I needed a few days to withdraw and let them settle before I could even attempt to put them into words.

Let’s start with the easy bit: the synopsis.  “The Blind Man’s Garden” is the story of two men from Pakistan who unwittingly end up recruited by the Taliban to join the war against the Western forces in Afghanistan.  The novel’s two main strands follow the plight of these unwilling soldiers and also the lives of the families they leave behind in a country that is itself becoming ever more unstable.  It’s a war that dominated our media for years, and yet in all that time I never came across anything that got inside the heads and hearts of the people who actually lived through this terrible period as vividly as this book.  As you would expect, there are some disturbing episodes that depict mankind at its most brutal.  Aslam’s writing is unwaveringly lyrical even when presenting his readers with the most horrific of scenes, and yet despite this linguistic delicacy I still had to take a day or two’s break in the middle and step away from the characters’ emotional and physical pain for a while.

Something I really love about this author, though, is his emphasis on beauty even in the face of the ugliest human behaviour.  In this book, we return time and time again to the lush tranquillity of the titular garden; its owner may have failing sight but he can sense the vibrancy of nature all around him.  This idea of trust in the constancy of the garden’s beauty became for me a metaphor for having faith in all that is decent and pure even when our own world seems so darkened by malice and evil that we lose sight of it.  And it would be all too easy for a book to descend into absolute bleakness when it’s telling a story such as this.  Jihadists murder children, Western soldiers torture innocent civilians, human lives come to an end in the most pitiful of ways – and yet somehow what stays with you after you’ve finished reading are the depictions of love that outlast everything else, even death itself.  It’s too neat a solution and too easy a cliché to say that love conquers all, but you get the feeling that in Nadeem Aslam’s mind love and beauty will always prevail no matter what.

There’s very little in the way of judgement here.  The author clearly cares deeply about the fate of his creations and yet there is a certain sense of detachment from the situation as a whole.  The novel isn’t really even asking the reader to take sides in any political debate.  This is one tiny part of the conflict; although the action takes place against the backdrop of a world forever altered by the events of 9/11, it’s really about the effects as felt by just a handful of individuals.  The war in Afghanistan may be sending ripples across the entire globe, but for the people involved it’s not so much about the survival of a country or army, but simply the survival of themselves and those they love.  I think this is one reason why the book rang so true; all the characters have their own political opinions of course, but in a time of crisis it’s the relationships with the people dear to them that carry the most weight and spur them on in their darkest moments.

If the subject matter sounds grim, please don’t let that put you off.  Yes, parts of the book are heart-breaking and hard to read, but it’s never unreadable – and I’m generally quite sensitive to depictions of brutality.  Images from the novel will almost certainly linger in your mind for quite a while, but I found the moments of hope proved as potent as those of despair.  He’s such a tremendous writer and I guarantee his exquisite turn of phrase will blow you away.  Not many people I know have read his novels, and I think that’s a real shame because he deserves a much wider audience.  Make time for this book and you’ll be rewarded.