The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam

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The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Lara's search for her brother brings her to the strange residence of Marcus Caldwell where, over a few days, people begin to converge whose lives are more interlinked than they can possibly imagine.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571238804

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Lara is looking for her brother. Benedikt was little more than a child, scarcely a man anyway, when he was conscripted by the Russian army and sent to fight the Afghans. He went missing one day. Missing presumed dead is what the official communiqués usually say. But sometimes families find that presumed too hard to take and need to know for sure.

Lara has been back to Afghanistan several times over the years since that conflict ended, and another one started, searching. Now she has arrived at the house by the shores of Lake Usha, giving its name to the nearby town of Usha, the teardrop.

The house is the home of Marcus Caldwell, Englishman, doctor, one-time perfumier. His daughter, Zameen, might have known Benedikt… but Zameen is also dead. With no 'presumed' about it. Her mother too, died.

Before her death though, Qatrina, the Afghani wife that kept Marcus there all those years… and in a way keeps him there still… she went mad. In the days of the Taliban she feared for all the beloved books they had, and so thought to hide them. She did this by nailing them, one by one, to ceilings of their home.

That she went mad is clear from the outset… how rational a response that shutting down of the mind was, becomes clear as the story unfolds.

There are the Americans. David Town knew Zameen in the days after she was lost to her father, but before her death. He loved her. But he was working for the CIA and she was an unknown quantity. As time passed he became known to Marcus and the two became friends, both linked in a search for child. Also missing. Not presumed dead.

And of course, in the hills above, are the rebels. They were the mujahidin in the days when they were fighting the Russians and the western world sent them arms and expertise. Now they are…what? Freedom fighters still? The Taliban? Insurgents? Or merely the criminal rebels that many of them probably never rose above in the first place…in it for the fight, whoever the enemy? Some and some, no doubt.

Among them, not only in the hills, but virtually running the town are two rivals – whose alliances are opportunist and whose real war is with each other, a vendetta that has survived generations.

From among this element emerges Casa. A radical young man entrenched in his views, by his years of training, but with a single memory of another life, of colour cascading down a stairwell.

Both David and Casa find their way to the home of Marcus Caldwell in the days following Lara's arrival.

Over the few days of Lara's stay at the house, events and meetings lead to the telling of everyone's stories spanning twenty to thirty years of war. Sometimes this is within the context of characters sharing their history; mostly the tales emerge by interspersed narration suddenly dropping us back in time. None of these flashbacks are signalled in any way. None of them are confusing. Such is Aslam's deftness of tone. Although he switches time, place and character focus, almost at will, he is easy to follow. You always know who you're with and where. The when is not always fixed in calendar time, but context emerges swiftly enough for no pause to be needed.

Swiftly. That's a relative term. The Wasted Vigil is not a page-turning romp. For a story set in modern-day Afghanistan, it succeeds unnervingly well in harking bark to the days when the country languished in the land of myth. It weaves its magic slowly. There is no rhyme or meter or pretence to be anything other than a novel, but it is hard not to see The Wasted Vigil as an extended poem. It is lyrically beautiful throughout.

This should not be possible. The story takes in one of the greatest tragedies of our time. A country endlessly fought over, not for its own sake, but for the access it gives to other things, cultures, places, peoples. A harsh country. Bleak. But beautiful? Yes, for one with the right vision. A violent country all the same. This is modern day Afghanistan…you can expect explosions and slaughter and horror of other kinds.

Aslam pulls no punches. He condemns just about everyone in these 370 pages. Religious or atheist. The West, the East, the Communists, the Islamists. At the same time, he also humanises them, shows how all are trying to live by their own lights in their own best way. And mostly failing.

Wisdom weaves a silent path through the whole. And that's the final triumph of The Wasted Vigil. Everyone's vigil in this book has the potential to prove ultimately wasted and yet in keeping it, each of them shows a glimmer of a wisdom. On all sides.

Everyone is right in their own way. And all of them are wrong.

A thoughtful and truly beautiful book, with its thorns of political insight suitably camouflaged.

The author, Nadeem Aslam, born in Pakistan but now living in England, won the Kiriyama Prize and the Encore Award for his second novel Maps for Lost Lovers (pub. 2005) and is clearly shaping up to be a very important writer.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Road Home by Rose Tremain.

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