To enter Nadeem Aslam's world is to enter a darker, more perfectly
rendered world than our own. Here, cemeteries are 'bone forests,'
night insects have knees and elbows of 'finest wire,' memories rise
'like bruises' and the mountains ripple like 'sapphire water.' The
characters that inhabit this world are also deftly drawn, and they
echo familiar people and situations. Yet, they are distinctly
different; each character is a stereotype unwrapped, a mysterious
personality revealed. What we think we know about Aslam's characters
in the beginning, we learn by the end is merely superficial.
The Wasted Vigil explores the relationship between six tragic people in Afghanistan. Marcus, Lara, David, Casa, Dunia, and James come together in Marcus's house to wait. Each is searching for something, but as the title suggests, they will ultimately wait in vain. Employing irony and flashback, Aslam delicately reveals the deep ties connecting these characters. As the six interact, they grow into a type of family as they each become the replacement for someone important in another's life. The hatred they are supposed to have for each other Casa should hate David for being American, Marcus should hate Lara for being Russian begins to disappear. It doesn't completely leave, we watch the characters struggle with their perceptions of 'the other,' but we see the internal discussion and this opens up a larger rumination on the function of stereotype and the power of prejudice. Even Casa, the heartless terrorist, the creature who vows to destroy America, becomes human as we watch him help David build a birch-bark canoe or wonder where his mother is; and when we learn of the abject abuse that was leveled on him as a child in a madrassa, we begin to feel deep pity for him. Aslam's ability to reveal the complex qualities in all his characters is one of this novel's strengths.
The story and relationships unfold against the backdrop of Marcus's house, a beautiful six room dwelling near a lake outside of Usha, a town targeted by terrorists. Each room is painted with gorgeous murals of Allah's bounty, but it is also a chilling reminder of Marcus's losses and the plague of the Taliban. His wife, Quatrina, who became insane after severe Taliban brutality, chose to save her library by bolting each book to the ceiling. To read a novel, one must pull a book from the ceiling and imagine the word that was blotted out by the nail's hole. This poignant image of books being saved through partial destruction resonates through the plot and the characters: all good things must be partially destroyed to survive the nightmares in this country. In total, the house represents the degradation of classical Islam, a theme that Aslam investigates throughout the novel. When Casa finds a severed head in the large box full of Quatrina's 99 paintings of Allah, we have a crystalline, horrific, and powerfully juxtaposed example of the delicate beauty of classical Islam and the deathly fanaticism that has wormed its way into the faith.
Aslam explores a variety of themes and historical moments as he strives to illustrate 'the continuation of wars' and the connections between these unlikely friends. The notion that fighting, whether internal or external, between friends or amongst nations, can ever be resolved is adroitly examined as Aslam walks with these characters through their pain and searching. His beautiful language, precise imagery, and nuanced characterization add to the rich experience of reading this book. As with Aslam's other work, the plot is subtle and the action spurred largely by character development, but this is a beautiful, powerful book, one that should make us think about the ways we perceive other people.
Nadeem Aslam was born in 1966 in Pakistan and now lives in North London. He moved to England at 14 when his father, a communist and a supporter of the Soviet invasion of Pakistan, decided to flee the country with his family. Aslam studied biochemistry at Manchester University before pursuing writing. He wrote his first short story in the Urdu language for a Pakistani newspaper at age 13. His first novel, Season of Rainbirds (1993), was critically acclaimed and won the Betty Trask Award, the Authors' Club First Novel Award, and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award. His second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers (2005), took eleven years to write. Set in a small town in England about Pakistani immigrants, it won Aslam international recognition, the Encore Award and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.
Aslam's latest novel, The Wasted Vigil, was written in seven months. During the time in which he was writing, he saw no one. His family brought him food while he was sleeping. In appreciation, he dedicated the novel to his sister and brother-in-law for their support. The title of the novel is derived from a painting by Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chugtai (1894-1975) with the same name. Aslam remarks on the connection between his novel and the painting, in which a well-dressed, smiling, hopeful woman sits waiting, saying "the artist and God knows that it ain't gonna happen. So once you look at the title, it's quite a chilling picture."
Aslam believes that "the novelist's job is not to pose solutions, but to find out how best to live. That is the intention in each of my books." As with all Aslam's work, he begins with the mundane and discovers the beauty and pain of everyday life. In The Wasted Vigil, he started with a group of people with opposing ideological backgrounds and put them together. "I wanted to write about how friends become family," he says.
This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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