It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.
Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.
As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).
The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.
Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.
Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:
How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?
In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.
Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.
(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)
Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.
Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.
A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)