A very short novel which in a way is reminiscent of old Persian and/or Arab love tales. The story begins with the unnamed narrator being released from prison and returning to his home village. He is a shell of his former self - older, emaciated, sick. Along the way, he collapses and is taken in by a older, scholarly man named Abbas - a poet - who nurses him back to health and allows him to remain as his guest. He begins to teach him how to read and write (the young boy had only ever been taught The Qur’an), setting the groundwork for how he begins to tell his story. Written in the form of a letter - or journal - it is a first person account of a young man and his longing for a young girl he met years earlier named Saba, the daughter of a very powerful and respected man in a small village in what appears to be the Swat Valley region of Pakistan. The events that begin the story take place fifteen years prior to the actual telling of the story, long before the current upheavals now taking place in that war torn region.
The unnamed narrator, along with his family, attends the wedding of a local villager. It is there he meets Saba and convinces her to wander away with him so he can show her his father’s orchard, a beautiful space in which he often spends time alone, a space his memory equates with a sort of paradise. They talk through the night and fall asleep. In the middle of the night they are roughly awakened by Saba’s brothers who drag her away back to her home. The young boy follows after her only to be severely beaten by Saba’s father. But the young boy doesn’t stand for it and, full of rage, begins savagely beating Saba’s father, only to be stopped by Saba herself when she gets in between them. The young boy thinks Saba chose her father’s side in the dispute and storms off.
The next morning, while sitting in his father’s orchard, he notices the local policeman watching him. As he walks home, they arrest him, beat him, and threaten his life. He crossed a line beating an important man like Saba’s father and after an accusation of rape he is thrown into prison. The prison scenes are absolutely harrowing - the conditions in which the boy was forced to live under, literally chained to the floor of a small, dank cell along with dozens of others who are all there for a variety of crimes. The torture scenes will make your skin crawl. He is held there for 15 years, without being charged, without trial, without even anyone in his family ever coming to visit him.
Two things help him through this harrowing ordeal - his thoughts about Saba and catching glimpses of swallows from the cell’s one lone window - for him, a symbol of freedom as well as memories of his father’s orchard where he used to observe them as a boy. Then, one day, without warning, he is released into a very changed world and a region he no longer recognizes. The religious fundamentalists have taken over the valley, there is constant warfare, foreigners streaming over the porous borders, and his family home abandoned, his father’s orchard left to decay.
The entire story is told from the narrator’s point of view so we never really know the other side of the story or whether or not it’s even a reliable narrative at all. Being that he is still longing for this young girl he hardly knew all these years later makes one question the reliability of his account. Did something really happen, or was it merely a case of “shame”, an insult to an important tribal elder, especially one from another class?
British author Peter Hobbs’s prose is poetic and precise, filled with longing, sadness and regret and this is what the novel essentially amounts to: a young man, full of longing, regret, who finds himself trying to pick up the pieces of his shattered life in a world he no longer recognizes.