From the war on terror to modern myths of progress, history haunts February's listby Rachel Sylvester / January 23, 2013 / Leave a comment
“History is the third parent”—the first line of Naseem Aslam’s powerful new novel, The Blind Man’s Garden (Faber, £18.99), could be a subtitle for all this month’s books. Set in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, Aslam follows the story of one family shaped and damaged by war. The backdrop is the father’s garden, a symbol of safe domesticity that becomes more threatening as he loses his sight. In the same way, danger closes in on all the characters as they travel through conflict, their lives criss-crossing as the plot moves from rural village to bustling market place, from terrorist training ground to CIA prison camp. Aslam beautifully evokes varying places and cultures, portraying different versions of love and loyalty, extremism and cruelty. There’s a sense here that Afghanistan is a nation travelling in circles, haunted by its past as it struggles towards the future—a particularly pertinent message this year, perhaps, as British troops prepare to leave.
A Hologram For the King (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), by the novelist Dave Eggers, is set in another country caught between modernity and antiquity: Saudi Arabia. A struggling American businessman, Alan Clay, travels to Jeddah to try and win a contract to run the technology for a new desert development, the King Abdullah Economic City, as it rises from the sand. The clashes between western life and Saudi traditions are all too apparent in the marble-clad hotels and air-conditioned tents where alcohol is illegal but readily available. As the American visitor waits to make his pitch to the monarch, his own mid-life crisis seems to mirror the identity crisis of the country he is visiting. But his attempt to hold himself and his dysfunctional family together, under pressure from both the recession and globalisation, is also a metaphor for the wider problems facing his own country. The shifting balance of power in the world—the decline of America and its effect on the American psyche, and the rise of China—is the main theme of this book. Named by the New York Times as one of the best five novels of 2012, it is a serious and engagingly told work.
In Anatomies: The Human Body, Its Parts and the Stories They Tell (Viking, £18.99), Hugh Aldersey-Williams moves from body snatchers to tattoo parlours, from the death-mask of Isaac Newton to the afterlife of Albert Einstein’s brain, to look at how assumptions have changed about…