By Pooja Pande
It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.
Uzma Aslam Khan’s most recent novel, Thinner Than Skin, resonates with all the ominous eloquence those opening quotes suggest (the former from Charles Simic’s Memories of the Future, and the latter, from Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth and Other Essays)—the fear, the anticipation, the sense of an other-worldly reality, the mystery that is human behavior, the sheer vulnerability of a life: “In later years, she would ask Maryam if her skin was as thin as a goat’s. And Maryam would tell her the truth. It was thinner. Which meant, of course, that if a goat could be shred that easily, so could a woman.”
Unfolding in the icy climes and unfriendly peaks of the glaciers of north Pakistan, the novel is narrated by Nadir, a Pakistani photographer living in San Francisco, and Maryam, a gypsy lady from a nomadic tribe in north Pakistan (one informed by an external vision that seeks the internal, and the other blessed with an innate vision that can perhaps alter the external).
Khan, who chooses to live in Pakistan and dust the experience of it through the sieve of fiction, addressing, in her novels, the politics of a nation in perpetual strife (“If not floods, raids… In Pakistan, it was hard to know which tragedy to dwell on most”), has a style unlike any other; this is not the world of Mohammed Hanif’s hard-as-nails clever prose, or Nadeem Aslam’s romantic, neo-magic realism. Uzma’s Pakistan always comes alive via the characters peopling her books, through classic storytelling. This is the place where each is determined not to be outstoried. The characters are all written into being with an intensity and care such that each of them tugs at the reader’s sympathy and sensibilities (such that that basic instinct to choose a favorite, is rendered almost meaningless), each of them positing a different aspect to the same argument, in a way. The argument of Pakistan’s place in the world. The argument of America’s problematic international politics. The argument of relationships between men and women, as uncharted and impossible and natural, as ancient glacier peaks: Sometimes it was desirable to put a mountain between yourself and someone else.
Mimicking the slow movement that the novel’s gaze rests on—the glaciers—Thinner Than Skin throbs with the urgent question of movement in the human world. In a book that gets together nomads and expats and shape-shifters of all sorts, the big issue treads the territory of ‘home’; concerning itself with the age-old motifs of coming back and going away, wondering where you belong. Akin to the ginger plant: Always on the move, in the middle, between things, between being. Leave the vertical world to trees and mountains. Everything else with any sense at all—including gods and jinns—moved like the ginger plant…
You don’t just read Thinner Than Skin, you enter it and inhabit it in order to comprehend it.