Every once in a while, we hear about a man who has returned from a far flung jail after decades to find that his family has moved on, his wife has remarried or died, his children do not recognise him, there’s nobody waiting for him. There is a soundbyte and pictures of a vacant, resigned face. This book looks beyond that blank face. It delves into the vortex of emotions, the sense of hurt and relief, the shadow of joy that such a man feels.
Set in the hills of northern Pakistan, is a small town with a pomegranate orchard. It's the most beautiful place in the world for a young boy. Even after 15 torturous years in jail, he can describe the sounds, smells and textures of the orchard. He sits there at dawn, waits patiently for the fruit to swell and ripen, savouring the memory of its sweet and sour taste.
He thinks about his beloved and wonders what became of her. He tells her how the stench of the jail still haunts him. How, in the first few days, he tried to expel the taste of fear and pain from his mouth, but eventually had no spit to summon. The smell clung to him, penetrating every part of him. He tells her how the world broke his heart and hopes, his faith and spirit, until he began yearning for the relief of death. How he held on to an illusion, love or just the memory of love that condemned him to so much suffering, but also saved him in the end. He tells her about the swallows he spotted in the jail, so quick, so perfect in their lines, like little miracles in the air.
It's a delicately crafted story. The narrative and style, the small sentences and frequent breaks add to the effect. You meet a weak man, recovering from loss, recounting his horrors, trying to conserve his strength as he goes, pausing for a sip of water as his mouth goes dry or a sigh as he waits for the pain of his memory to subside. The voice is so simple and sincere, it breaks your heart and lingers.
The book touches upon the war in Afghanistan and what meaning it has to people in the Northern provinces of Pakistan. It seems like a half-hearted attempt to add another dimension to the tale.
The cover declares it's a book of great beauty. And it is.
Title: In the Orchard, The Swallows; Author: Peter Hobbs; Publisher: Faber and Faber; Genre: Literary Fiction; Pages: 139