Thinner Than Skin – Uzma Aslam Khan

After the success of The Geometry of God and Trespassing, I expected Uzma Aslam Khan to build further on her reputation as one of the eminent novelists chronicling the lives of contemporary Pakistanis but this novel has come as a disappointment.

It started well enough, with two lead characters, Nadir and Farhana – the former a Pakistani in the United States struggling to build a life of promise in a country his parents had sent him to study; and the latter, a mix-raced Pakistani-German who wants to discover the Pakistani side of her identity by ‘returning’ to Pakistan which is now gripped in turmoil. Through their uneasy love we see the uneasy love Pakistanis carry for their homeland, which they have many reasons to despair for and leave behind. And the promise of the new lands of the West, which, despite it glitter and glory, cannot fully satisfy the needs of those who have shunned their homelands.

Parallel to it runs the story of Maryam and her family who are herders for generations. Through them the author has painted a grim picture of the situation the locals of the mountainous north of Pakistan have found themselves in. Hemmed in by all sides in a conflict that spills across borders – trouble in Xinjiang, violence in Central Asian states, perennial instability in Afghanistan, oppression in Kashmir – all this spills into the once peaceful mountainous regions of Pakistan where the state and its rebels fight out each other at the cost of the local people.

The fates of Nadir and Farhana get entwined with that of Maryam and her family when an accident happens during their visit of discovery to the Northern Areas. They are sucked into a conflict which is as much personal as it is public and political.

Our story stalls after the accident, the manner in which the author shows both parties dealing with the accident is…very lacking. There are lots of monologues the characters address to themselves, that do little but confuse the reader. If the author was attempting unreliable narration, it certainly didn’t work.

Maryam’s story and the characters that populate her world, in my view, do not talk and behave as northern mountain people do. An air mystery surrounds Maryam’s family which is not dealt with cleverly. She is also depicted as following some strange pagan cult, even though they are clearly shown to be Muslims, albeit holding on to some ancient mountain rituals for which they get plenty of scorn from Muslims who purport to follow a more ‘purist’ form of Islam. Bluntly put, the writing on Maryam’s family is not intelligent – it has little to hold your attention; it is more like a long and repetitive ramble.

The last part of the novel did not satisfy me. The thread of the plot is lost after the accident takes place. From that point on the story only drags and ends abruptly and nonsensically.

I vacillated between giving it two stars and three stars. If I had given it two stars, this would have been quite harsh of me; if I had awarded it three, this would have meant I liked it more than I had. So I settle for 50/50; I rate this novel as halfway between acceptance – a 2.5 stars out of 5.

(First published 2012)