three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
By: 
Nadeem Aslam
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The Wasted VigilA Pakistani novelist living in England, Nadeem Aslam confronts issues of East versus West in his ambitious third novel.

The Story: In a war-ravaged and desolate present-day Afghanistan, characters converge in the isolated, ramshackle house of Marcus Caldwell, a British doctor who lost his Afghan wife, his daughter, and his left hand to the violent reign of the Taliban. Lara, a Russian widow attacked with a tire iron after unwittingly sleeping with her feet towards Mecca, is searching for her brother. Casa is an Afghan orphan who was raised by Taliban jihadists to become a martyr. And David, a former CIA agent, is still mourning the loss of his brother in the Vietnam War. All are searching for something just out of reach—inextricably bound to one another by history, fate, and the brutality and devastation surrounding them.
Knopf. 336 pages. $25. ISBN: 030726842X

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"It may overwhelm at first glance, but as your eyes adjust, each piece is distinct and fascinating even as they fit together to tell a greater story. … The fabric[s] of these characters’ lives are interwoven with rich, carefully researched detail about Afghanistan and the intricacies of life in a country still grappling with the lasting influences of the Taliban and Al Qaeda." Jenna Fisher

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"There are episodes in the book so intense, so gruesome, that you have to close it and breathe before you can start again. Similarly, there are poetic images so stunning that you pause and read again to savour the sheer beauty of the language." Mohammed Hanif

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"The Wasted Vigil is a more diffuse narrative [than The Kite Runner], braiding the stories of its characters backward and forward in time, gradually revealing how each arrived at the house in Usha, as suspense builds around what will happen to them there. … Aslam balances the brutality they experience with a lush prose style studded with glowing and remarkably beautiful images, a contrast reminiscent of Russian writer Andrei Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers." Maya Muir

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"A pragmatist, Aslam takes no sides in the fight between Islam and the West, even as he approaches a rigid stance against terrorism. The softly gleaming beauty of his prose is immediately reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje, and the moral clarity of his concerns heralds a brave new voice in the mold of Salman Rushdie." Vikram Johri

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers of Aslam’s previous novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, will not be surprised at his passionate view of contending cultural forces. But they may be somewhat taken aback by the starkness of the prose style in The Wasted Vigil, much of it written in the present tense. This is very effective in bringing the reader into the heart of the action, sometimes a little too much so for comfort." Martin Rubin

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"The revelations throughout are artful, at times carrying a dramatic emotional impact. But Aslam’s unexpectedly florid writing … often makes reading this novel painful." Lorraine Adams

Telegraph (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"The symbolism and the sentimentality might be forgivable if the writing were good. But the prose is painfully repetitious. … The structure is poor and the tone outraged.’" Sameer Rahim

Critical Summary

Nadeem Aslam’s unflinching epic novel spans centuries of civilization and conflict in Afghanistan, shifting back and forth through time while resolutely refusing to side with East or West. While he takes a dim view of terrorism, Aslam dismisses the notion that the Taliban is solely to blame for Afghanistan’s plight, pointing instead to the conjunction of multiple cultural, political, and economic forces in a relentless cycle of aggression and retaliation. Some critics took issue with Aslam’s prose, and his graphic descriptions of torture, rape, and murder make the book unsuitable for the squeamish. But for those with strong stomachs, Aslam takes readers on a haunting journey into a civilization on the margins of modernity, a world still incomprehensible to most Western eyes.

Also by the Author

Maps for Lost Lovers (2004): Award Star Kiriyama Prize. An unmarried Muslim couple living in sin in a Pakistani neighborhood in London is found murdered. Their deaths shed light on the cloistered world of Pakistani émigrés as they strive to hold on to their disappearing traditional culture.