The fifth and last book nominated for the autumn Read This! selection was Nadeem Aslam's second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers. Aslam has been known by readers of serious fiction in the UK since 1993, with the publication of his award-winning first novel, Seasons of the Rainbirds. But Rainbirds was never published in the US, so we American readers didn't get our first exposure to Aslam's work until May of this year, with the publication of Maps.
The plot turns on a mysterious event, set in the spring of 1996. In an unnamed English town populated by Pakistani immigrants, an unmarried couple has vanished. The man's brother and sister-in-law fear the worst. They know the missing couple's life together violated Islamic law, and they suspect the missing woman's two brothers are involved in the disappearance. The novel was inspired by an actual case of "honor killing" in 1988 in the town of Huddleston, where the Aslam lives.
While the fate of the couple and the causes and consequences of their disappearance drive the narrative, the novel's emotional pull comes from character, not plot. Jungnu, the missing man, is a free spirit who traveled the world in his work as a lepidopterist before settling down next door to his quieter brother, Shamas. Shamas, at age 65, works in the local community center and has a reputation as a good man. He also shares his brother's skeptical attitude toward Islam. Shamas's wife Kaukab provides more than a counterweight for his skepticism. Alone in the family, she maintains her faith and struggles with her anger, fear, and sadness for the spiritual corruption she sees in her husband and children. Jungnu's lover, family, townspeople, and passers-through are depicted with deep sympathy as well. It's a feat for a book with so much violence to be so tender at the same time.
The opening pages of Maps — which are dense with minute observations of nature and the physical world, and thick with eccentric metaphors — can set readers back on their heels. But Aslam is showing us the world through the eyes of Shamas, who was a poet in his youth and has not shaken off the habit of compulsive metaphor-making: an "eye that sees the rough material for metaphors and similes all around it." Microscopes that "slept like hawks with their dust covers on." A cloud of bugs is a "lace of insects." Fluttering seagulls are like "white-paper scraps." Grass the "the orangey-gold of the foil that orange flavored chocolate bars come in." Like jokes in a comedy routine, they can't all be gems. But many, many of them are. As the novel progresses the flow of metaphors slows and we are delivered over to the steady momentum of events.
I've read that Aslam's decade-long labor in this novel included the creation of hundreds of pages of history for each character. If so, it's a tribute to him that so little of this labor is apparent. Much of what we learn in Maps is suggested rather than explicit, and the novel ends with the primary mystery solved but much else unexplained. It's a deeply rewarding book nevertheless — certainly one of the best I've read this year.