I first read Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers almost four years ago, and it stuck in my mind as a beautiful and deeply troubling book. The “lost lovers” of the title are Jugnu and Chanda who have disappeared from their home in a nameless British city that its Pakistani immigrants have renamed the “Dasht-e-Tanhaii” (the desert of solitude). Although certain characters deny this possibility almost till the end of the novel, it seems obvious almost from the beginning that Jugnu and Chanda have been killed by Chanda’s brothers for the crime of living together before they were married, and the novel explores the ramifications of this murder on Jugnu’s brother Shamas and his family, and, to a lesser degree, on other inhabitants of the town.
I still think Maps for Lost Lovers is beautiful (though sometimes Aslam gets a little too caught up in his lush imagery!) but I’ve lost some of my love for this book because it seems like Aslam has slanted things very severely in favor of certain of his characters and against others. His innate talent as a writer prevents Kaukab, Shamas’s wife, from being as one-dimensional as he may have intended her to be, but I did feel a bit like I was reading a Philip Pullman novel with the author whispering in my ear that religion (in this case Islam) was an unmitigated evil. Even though many of the excesses that Aslam details in this novel are no doubt true (honor killings are sadly common!), it did seem like he kept piling on the horrid details to make the reader come down on the side of Shamas (the ineffectual ‘humanist’) and some of Kaukab’s arguments with her children seemed particularly staged.
Still, Aslam is a brilliantly talented writer and the novel is beautiful and heartbreaking.
(Read from March 12-13, 2010)