Thinner Than Skin, Uzma Aslam Khan, Clockroot Books, 2012, 299 pp
There are plenty of ways to get and be lost in this world. Because I have a poor sense of direction, I get lost easily. Because I am drawn to novels by authors from locations and cultures distinct from my own, I often feel lost while I am reading. The impact on me from Uzma Aslam Kahn's fourth novel was a vertigo of feeling lost, afraid, and anxious.
Thinner Than Skin opens with the meditation on her former life by a woman making the yearly journey from the plains to the highlands of summer. Maryam walks along the shore of a lake with her daughter, a mare, a filly, three buffaloes, four goats, and numerous sheep. Two mountain peaks, mist, and a wind that carries a sense of foreboding. Maryam has a vision of a strange man. Where is she? I do not know. Already in the first three pages I am lost as well as filled with Maryam's foreboding.
I read on and meet Nadir and his girlfriend Farhana, sleeping in a cabin in a place called Kaghan. Finally I find out they are in Northern Pakistan, having traveled from San Francisco. Both are of Pakistani descent, their relationship is as rocky as a steep mountainside, and by the end of that chapter I know they are both doomed in some way because of their youth and self-involvement. Despite education and a certain amount of privilege, they are essentially clueless.
I get to the end of the novel. I have been all over a part of the world so foreign to me that even a map showing Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan as they relate to Afghanistan and Pakistan makes me feel lost. The distance between Nadir and Maryam, in worldview, in emotional response, in human interaction, is so vast that though they are both Pakistani and human, they may as well be alien species to each other.
After a terrible fatal accident for which Nadir and Farhana are responsible, the forces of tribal custom, terrorism, and nature pursue these two across a glacier, across a culture, to an outcome even more doomed than I had foreseen at the beginning.
Then comes the ending where the author leaves me, lost in Nadir's mind but found in Maryam's. A trip in every sense of the word.
(Thinner Than Skin is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)