Book cover: Maps for Lost LoversHaving read more diversely throughout 2015 (hurray), I have been on the slow boat through the 2 week challenge so have only finished one of the 3 titles I have in progress (I will review the others on completion later this month).

Shamas and Jugnu are the unconventional sons of an accidental Muslim, a Hindu boy rendered amnesiac by a bomb blast in the wake of the Amritsar riots and adopted by Muslims. His younger sons (now adults) live with the slight tarnish to their name his legacy brings; the hothouse gossip-beds of their immigrant community in Britain thrives on such morsels.

When Jugnu falls in love with Chanda, twice-divorced daughter of a local shopkeeper, they outrage the faithful – including Kaukab, Jugnu’s sister-in-law – by moving in together. Months later, they go on a trip home to Pakistan and are never seen again. When Kaukab asks some boys to peer in their window, it becomes evident that they came home and a police investigation begins into their disappearance.

Picking up some months later, Maps for Lost Lovers explores the fractures and griefs within a community that holds itself wilfully separate from its host nation, fearful of ridicule, racism, and ritual pollution. Slowly unfolding stories wind about the core tragedy, a little like a toccata and fugue revisiting the same themes through varying iterations to explore and explain – but crucially, not justify – the practice of culturally acceptable murder in Islam.

This is beautifully written stuff, shamelessly slow and given to evoking floral and butterfly imagery (Jugnu is a lepidopterist) in such detail that the colours and scents leap off the page, as do the sharp smells and rich flavours of Kaukab’s glorious cooking. It contrasts harshly with the unthinkable beliefs that the novel confronts you with, and the human frailties that are exposed by them.

Ultimately, the whole novel is shaped by and around religious belief. It lost me a little in the penultimate act, where it fell into polemic. Kaukab’s confrontation with her beloved son Ujala is the only time we hear from him directly, so his assault on her faith feels like the voice of the author because Ujala has been given no voice of his own. Although the author has never shown sympathy for the beliefs, through Ujala he demolishes any defence of them, just as the novel omits any illustration of moderate or integrated Islam – Aslam shows us the devout and the atheist, with nothing in between. There’s lots to reflect on here, which I won’t do within the context of a review; suffice to say I feel driven to seek out some reading (fact or fiction) that explores the practices of a more moderate faith.

I also think I would have been happier too without the final act, where the truths of Jugnu’s and Chanda’s disappearance are spelled out; this wasn’t a story that left me craving certainty and I felt that some of the ideas being expressed about loyalties to faith vs foreign justice were equally served through Shamas and the abuse storylines.

It’s a fairly minor gripe. This is a powerful novel, if difficult reading, and I highly recommend it. Not for those with a closed mind – you’ll need all your empathy at hand. For further reading, I recommend Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, especially for the role of women in spreading Islamic tenets and enforcing behaviours that strip their agency and leave them vulnerable and at fault in almost every situation.

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