Midnight's children


Uzma Aslam Khan <em>Flamingo, 464pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0007171838

Dia, the young heroine of Uzma Aslam Khan's ambitious second novel, is fascinated by the process of making silk. She lives in modern Pakistan and spends her free time at her mother's silk factory, gazing at larvae and white cocoons as they wait to be spun into garments. The silk factory provides a fitting metaphor for the novel as a whole, which attempts to unravel the cocoons - of self-protection and self-delusion - in which people wrap themselves. Trespassing is an attempt to understand some of the conflicts facing young people living in Pakistan today.

While the older generation is busy censoring a past that could help to explain the present, the younger characters are trying to look beyond the lives their families have arranged for them. Dia embarks on a forbidden love affair with a young journalist, Daanish, who has returned to Karachi after completing his studies in America. His time in the west has changed him and he now dares to challenge the existing order. Faced with an unreceptive audience, both in his own country and in the US, he struggles to expose the reasons behind Pakistan's volatile political climate. Khan's harrowing description of a torture chamber, told by a mysterious observer, provides a grim contrast to the illicit romance. The couple are trapped by social conventions and the belief that life is predetermined.

When her life begins to disintegrate, Dia finds solace in writing. Khan seems to be suggesting that only in fictional worlds do we have the power to influence fate - an idea reflected, perhaps, in the novel's deliberately rigid structure. Khan allows each character to narrate their own story in their own distinctive voice. We are jolted back and forth in time, and are never able to settle into an uninterrupted narrative. At times this can be jarring but it is never confusing.

Between the background of violence in Pakistan and the greed of the wider world, Trespassing offers little humour or comfort, but it is a tender book, distinguished by subtle descriptions of nature. It is a celebration of the importance of perception, inquisitiveness about the smaller details of life, but Khan does not shy away from the bigger picture. Writing intelligently, she explores colonialism, identity and belief, without presuming to offer any conclusions or solutions. Khan works with questions; hints and queries replace absolutes.

The prologue to Trespassing is entitled "Death" and the epilogue "Birth" - but one feels this is a hopeful ending rather than a happy one.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Coming soon: the new poor