I’m heading west, away from the holy trinity of North East Asia to the mountains of Pakistan. This is Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, the second to be published by small American press, Clockroot Books.
Having decided to go to Pakistan to research glaciers deep in the mountains of the wild north, Farhana and Nadir quickly find themselves out of their comfort zone. Already living an unstable relationship, their lives quickly spiral out of their own control, leaving them in a strange country, surrounded by even stranger people, moving away from safety, hoping against all hope that things will get better.
How much blame can we ascribe to one event? Can one event, one moment in time, truly affect us more than the accumulation of the smaller bits and pieces of our everyday lives? These are the questions Khan is seeking to answer, while at the same time, leading us on a tour of what must be one of the most beautiful, dangerous and underexplored parts of the globe.
Saif-ul-Maluk (جھیل سیف الملوک) is a lake in northern Pakistan, near the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India. It is a glacial lake, formed by the melt from the glaciers in the mountain ranges surrounding it. Saif-ul-Maluk is also the spiritual, physical and literary heart of the novel. It is easy to trace every event in the novel to and from the shores of Saif-ul-Maluk
Critics often talk about landscape and place becoming a character in a book, and while it often sounds wanky and ridiculous, there is a school of writing that foregrounds the environments in which stories take place. Cormac McCarthy, for example, uses southern USA in his work, while Tim Winton evokes Western Australia in his. Just like this, then, Khan makes full use of the area in which she has set her tale to inform and enrich her own tale. From the descriptions of the lake itself, to the evocations of San Francisco, to the final third, which is set on a mountain face in the Himalayas, Khan connects her story to the environments in which it is set. This adds a dimension not seen in so many novels, a dimension that pays huge dividends.
Farhana and Nadir have come to Pakistan with another American friend, Wes, despite Nadir’s misgivings. It is ostensibly a reason for Farhana to come to the country of her mother, to find an identity she feels she has lost having been brought up in America, though this is not a theme Khan seems to pursue with any particular enthusiasm—something I am grateful for. She is more concerned with far more universal themes, one in particular.
People do bad things every day. They do things that hurt the people they love the most; they do things that hurt complete strangers. How do we react to these moments of wrongdoing? Do we forgive the people who hurt us? And so we don’t just get the first person musings of Nadir, who is consumed with guilt over the events on the lake, though his recollections seem to be open to questions. Khan gives us alternating chapters told in third person, with Maryam the focus. In fact, it is Maryam that opens the novel, and her reflections on family and fate are what tie the novel to the mountains against which it is set.
Inevitably, then, the opposite of forgiveness is also explored—revenge. This is certainly the preoccupation of Maryam’s story strand, even if she herself does not necessarily want to undertake the act herself. Payment must be made for the death of her daughter, and as Irfan points out at one stage, this would usually be in the form of a court system or a police force, but because of where they are, nothing like this exists. Instead, it is up to the people to hand out justice/revenge. Interestingly, it is Nadir who eventually becomes the target of this justice, because Farhana is a woman, so cannot be touched. Or so he thinks—as with all first-person narrators, his recollection of events is not exactly accurate.
The biggest problem with this novel is that it makes me want to go to Saif-ul-Maluk, which is probably not a good life choice, because it’s a deeply unsafe part of the world—something that provides yet another layer to the backdrop of these intensely personal events taking place. The threat of sectarian violence—the kind we see on the news with depressing regularity—is mentioned again and again by all the characters, though three of our main four seem quite blasé about it. Of course, as with all good Chekov’s guns, if you refer to something again and again, chances are it’s going to become important by the end of the text. So, inevitably, terrorism rears its ugly head at the end of the novel, nicely tying in with other themes. Nadir and Farhana have not escaped cleanly from the crime they committed: as with all small communities—even ones that are constantly on the move—word gets around, and the option for revenge, for payback is taken. It takes time to eventuate, but Nadir discovers much too late that people have been watching him, ever since they left the lake.
Without spoiling too much of the ending, it is revenge that eventually wins out, in ways not entirely expected. Nadir and Farhana are finally made to pay for what they did to Maryam’s family, by a man who professes to be a friend; while lingering questions are finally answered as someone else chooses the path of revenge, though in a far more public manner. It is easy to plan revenge, but much harder to allow forgiveness in: it is, of course, thinner than skin.
Dealing with themes of forgiveness and revenge—base human emotions that we all experience, Thinner Than Skin is a layered, complex and mature novel from a writer at the height of her powers. It is perfectly constructed, both structurally and thematically, devoid of unnecessary words and ideas. Khan is in control of the language she uses to tell her story, leaving the reader blown away both by the power of the English language to describe both the natural and the internal.