War-Fraught Images Stack Hope & Horror

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    Nadeem Aslam

    Her mind is a haunted house,” reads the first line of Nadeem Aslam’s 336-page panorama of war-torn Afghanistan, a dense succession of snapshots so uncensored and honest they require of us a certain tolerance for pain.

    The Pakistan-born author hubs her plot in the haunted house of Marcus Caldwell, an old Englishman who has lost everyone he has ever loved to the country’s mass cemetery. All of its walls are riddled with bullet holes and hidden portraits of Taliban-forbidden love and passion, but the most important room is one in which Marcus’ wife has nailed all their books to the ceiling to protect them from terrorist raids. From time to time, a book symbolically falls to the floor, spilling passages from prose and poetry into Aslam’s narrative, which is of course rhythmically beautiful in its own right.

    In search of a brother missing in action, the Russian Lara Petrovna lands on Marcus’ doorstep, soon followed by American philanthropist David Town. Under the sloping roof, their lives begin to intertwine — an unexpected twist that loses a little of its novelty after at least four changes in perspective and subsequent retellings, each rattled off in the same limited voice. Rocky transitions from one narrator to the next occur every three seconds, switching from third to second person at jarring intervals. Although vivid landscape imagery draws all our senses into awareness, scattered lines bordering on unnecessary quickly kill that buzz.

    Afghanistan has certainly spent its 15 minutes in post-9/11 book-club circles — care of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” — but “Vigil” cannot be written off as trend. Suicide bombers Bizhad and Casa provide two of its narratives, giving depth to a likely target of fear-driven assumptions and delicately revealing the internal workings of their country’s long and complex struggle.

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