I wake in the middle of the night, and toss and turn for an hour before giving in, getting up, and going downstairs to have a cup of tea and read my book without waking my husband. Just past 4 it's already getting light, and though inside it's utterly peaceful outside the birds are singing their hearts out. Although part of me's worried about how tired I'll be later if I don't go back to sleep, another part's relishing the unfamiliar peace. I can't do anything constructive; there's nothing for it but to dive into my book. It's so good that I can almost believe I woke up just to read it - my subconscious mind rebelling against the mere three pages I managed before sleep overtook me.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin is a series of interlinking stories, glimpses of lives that meet in the household of a single Pakistani landowner. It's a deceptively simple way of constructing a world - I've often imagined writing variants on this theme, as have many people I guess - but here it's done with such skill and subtlety that I'm reminded anew of how complex good fiction has to be - the complexity hidden from the reader like invisible mending. Mueenuddin will have constructed family trees, timelines, maybe even drawn floorplans of his houses and maps of his characters' movements. Every detail is perfectly conceived, revealing the truth about a character with a word or an image that has the delicate accuracy of an Indian miniaturist's thinnest squirrel-hair brush.
Reading it makes me nostalgic for India. I fantasize about taking the boys there, travelling round for a few months, getting them used to eating curry rather than fish fingers. Eating runny curry with their fingers! I want to show them streets where the houses are painted pale blues and greens and pinks and violets, with bony oxen meadering around, munching aimlessly while they ignore the rickshaws screeching past them; take them to have their hair cut in roadside shacks, watch their faces as they see painted elephants leading wedding processions or try syrup-sweet jalabis cooked over fires by the side of the road.
But this is only the tourists' India, and what strikes me more than anything else is the bleakness of Mueenuddin's Pakistan. It's always a feature of modern sub-Continental fiction - I could hardly finish A Fine Balance because it was so sad. That sense of the inevitability of the individual's surrender to forces infinitely greater than himself - forces that will crush him utterly - is all-pervasive. Women are particularly vulnerable, especially in this book. I'm moved to tears by the story of Saleema, a maid who lives for a moment in her love for the household driver, almost allows herself to hope that she might be different, and is then cast relentlessly back into her preordained future: drug addiction, prostitution, tragedy.
I know some people think that the very act of writing about characters like these is somehow redemptive, that just writing about them implicitly carries a message of hope, of trust in humanity, but I'm not sure I agree. All I know is that as I sit here safely with my cup of tea cooling at my elbow, listening to my husband's footsteps as he gets into the shower and the gurgles of my waking boys, I feel undeservedly lucky.