Book review: The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

She opened the safety pin she had taken from a drawer in the kitchen and with it she quickly stabbed the tip of her index finger and held the drop of blood towards him.

‘It’s red. I want you to promise me you won’t try to injure someone else.’ His face was wrenched with emotion but she said firmly, ‘Look at it. You’ve seen now that it’s not black. Look at it.’

There was a silence. When she tried to say something further, he flinched, and then he covered his face with both hands and gave way to tears quietly.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Promise me.’

‘I promise,’ he said.

Helen is a Christian living in the city of Zamana in Pakistan, and she shows a delivery boy her blood to save him threatening anyone else with a knife to see if it’s true that Christian blood is indeed black. She lives with her illiterate father Lily, who is a servant for architects Massud and Nargis. Massud and Nargis have no children and so Helen becomes almost their own, they argue with Lily about her education, which they pay for. They encourage her to study abroad, which she refuses to do. One day Massud and Nargis go to Grand Trunk Road to help move sacred books hand by hand to the new library they designed and a stray bullet takes Massud’s life. Nargis comes under pressure from military intelligence to forgive his killer just as Helen meets the mysterious Imran from Kashmir. Meanwhile, someone is broadcasting people’s secrets from the minarets of the city’s mosques, spreading fear an an already tense city.

This novel is a stunning work. It tells a story both wide, and spread over centuries, and very intimate. That Aslam manages to step across that gulf so easily, and so frequently, is an incredible achievement. The book that Massud is holding when he is shot was authored by his own father. It is a book of the commonalities of humanity, the lore, the fables and, yes, the religious beliefs, that are interchanged between nationalities, cultures and faiths. And this book, destroyed and painstakingly stitched back together with gold thread, offers Aslam the focal point that makes his story both very specific and universal. The sense of place is breathtaking, the prose is beautiful and heartbreaking.

This world is the last thing God will ever tell us.

A few hours before he was killed, Massud woke at the call to the predawn prayer. It was issuing from the loudspeakers attached to the minaret just across the lane. He imagined the worshipers approaching the eighteenth century mosque in silence, some of them carrying lanterns. The sight of empty shoes at the thresholds of mosques had always made him think that the men had been transformed into pure spirit just before entering.

The highlight of this novel for me was its pacing. In moments of the most extreme violence Aslam resists the urge to pick up his pace, in fact he slows down, describing everything in minute detail, giving the scene a hyper-realistic clarity. A slow motion, almost underwater, inevitability. It’s supremely effective. When, somewhere about halfway through this novel I realised I was reading too fast, Aslam picked up the pace of his story again. And this is where it got strange, because alongside those hyper-real, slow motion moments, the climax of the novel seemed to occur in an emotional numbness, it was almost anti-climactic, the extremes of the story towards the end were smoothed over in a way that surprised me. I’d be interested in how other people read the final scenes, to see if they got the same impression.

Another thing: towards the end of the novel Aslam has the daughter of a cleric realise for the first time how alone women really were. This note struck me as false, having moved back with her father from the desert after a drone strike killed her husband, mother in law and left her son an amputee, and imprisoned in her home, I feel this would have occurred to her long ago. But that there was just one false note in a novel of such ambition is telling. It is beautiful, both timely and timeless. It should be read widely, and enjoyed as thoroughly as I did.

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam: four stars.

Published by: Allen & Unwin under the Faber and Faber imprint.

RRP: $29.99

Released: January 2017

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