In The Orchard, The Swallows by Peter Hobbs

28/01/12, FT

Very few novels manage to inhabit its first-person voice in the way Peter Hobbs achieved with Charles Wenmouth, the itinerant nineteenth-century West Country Methodist lay preacher, in his luminous first novel, The Short Day Dying. Its simplicity owed much to the Bible, even to the American Transcendentalists, but its austere and moving poetry was all its own. Seven years after that unforgettable debut, his second novel, In The Orchard, The Swallows brings us yet another first-person narrator: an unnamed man, thirty years old, living out his solitary days in a mountainous area somewhere in Northern Pakistan.

The story is almost elementally simple. At the age of fifteen, the narrator falls in love with a young girl, Saba, who belongs to a significantly upper class than him; her father is one of the chief political agents of the area and a match between the two is unthinkable. The boy courts her at a local wedding but is discovered and punished for it by the girl’s father. In a fit of temper, the boy snatches the switch from his hand and attacks the father. The next day he is picked up by the police, beaten up ruthlessly and locked up in a prison far from his village. In prison he is tortured for fifteen years until one day he’s released suddenly, without any reason. While behind bars, he dreams of the swooping, plunging flight of the swallows in his father’s pomegranate orchard. Then one day he thinks he sees ‘a flutter of the light at the window’. He watches closely and sees ‘a shadow pass, too quick to leave a shape’. Slowly, unbelievingly, he realises that there are swallows here. He feels something: ‘It was joy, and it was the most painful thing I have ever felt, because it reminded me of everything we no longer owned.’ It is unbearable enough to make you turn your eyes away from the page.

He emerges a broken man, literally, a creature so bent and twisted by what has been done to him that he finds it difficult to walk, breathe, eat, drink. He’s discovered, sick and disabled, by a kind man, Abbas, not far from his old home, now no longer belonging to his family, which has disappeared. It is Abbas who slowly nurses him back to some semblance of normality. As he rakes over the events that have brought him to the present moment, he asks what remains of the emotion that has provided him salvation in his darkest hour, his love for Saba; indeed, what is left of the core of his selfhood: ‘The boy I once was is a stranger to me, and sometimes I wonder if terrible experiences are enough to change a person – I mean fundamentally to change a person’s nature – or if they merely subdue it, and it endures there beneath, and will reassert itself in time.’

Written as a kind of gift-book addressed to his beloved Saba, the book remains faithful to its conceit of being penned by a man who is learning the language late in his interrupted life under the tutelage of his saviour, for the prose has a childlike simplicity, indeed innocence, about it. In this, it answers to a corresponding innocence in the narrator. The redemptive force in a book as brutal and bleak as this lies exactly here: that a man whose life goes through as harrowing a process of diminishment as Lear’s can still hold on to such gentleness, such unwavering belief in his love, is a Pascalian wager of faith.

One of the odd effects of the book derives from the oppositional counterpoint between what is being said and how it is being said: the style, pared down to the point of seeming blanched in places, is so simple that it feels like one is dipping one’s feet in a cold, pristine stream after a day’s arduous hike, while the subject matter, savage and excoriating, is the stuff of nightmares.

With the exception of two pages in which the Taliban and 9/11 are glancingly mentioned, Hobbs carefully keeps his fictional world free of political particulars, choosing rather to fashion something with the generality of fable. Towards the end of the book Hobbs acknowledges, with exemplary restraint and subtlety, the growing presence of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistani society: the world of the narrator, already so precarious and frangible, seems even more threatened. In the immensely affecting final pages, as the metaphorical resonances of the pomegranate orchard sound their plangent music and the possibility of a reunion with Saba recedes further, the narrator finds yet another redemptive strand in the selfless generosity and kindness of Abbas.