Neverhome is set in the years of the American Civil War and narrated by a fledgling letter-writer. She has survived the conflict and adopted this strange chore of authoring.
“When I’d eaten up my given share of a day I’d take up my pen to write Bartholomew. I had never written him or anyone else a letter before those days in my life and I did not much like the look of what I found I had to say. I have improved some at writing since as you can be the judge, but I was slow at my writing back then and using my pen to make words that would still mean something after traveling so many miles seemed a strange chore.”
The fact that writing is a new activity for her creates the opportunity for Laird Hunt to experiment with voice and tone in Neverhome, so that one character is described as quiet and “gone all autumn-apple-colored”. This is sometimes pleasing, sometimes a little awkward, and sometimes both, as with this description of another character: had she “been a well you could have dropped a stone down her throat and not heard any echo”.
This style is most effective when it embraces and enhances the work’s themes. For instance, after she is wounded, the narrator writes that the “flesh of my arm crept each day closer and closer together” and she compares this to “two ragged companies didn’t know yet they were fighting for the same side”.
The novel is immersed in the language of conflict, so that even a gentle story of a childhood remembrance is punctuated by artillery.
“When I was young, my mother liked to start one story and finish it off with another. Hansel and Gretel would end with Rumpelstiltskin, and the Snow Queen with Mother Hen. I didn’t know if she did this to investigate my state of interest or awakeness or because she thought the old tales had gotten played out and she wanted to freshen them up. Sometimes she would put three or four together. Tie them into a bundle and let loose the whole shooting match.”
Regardless of this mother’s intentions, Laird Hunt clearly does intend to bundle together some old themes, put them together and let loose.
Going off to war and returning home, setting aside convention and allowing your instinct to sail forth, love and loss, devotion and betrayal: Neverhome is an old story in a new skin, all its parts oiled and polished and ready to fire.
Like Laird Hunt’s narrative, Musharaff Ali Farooqi’s style is stark and plain; it is as though these two tales, preoccupied with borders, have put as few words as possible on the page, to draw clear attention to the letters on either side of the books’ bindings.
Both novels are about conflicts within borders, conflicts which result in borders being redefined (literally or metaphorically).
But Between Clay and Dust is not only about the partitioning of Pakistan but also about a conflict within the akhara, not only about national identities but personal ties as well.
“‘How simple Ustad Ramzi made it look.’
‘It is not without reason that he is the Ustad-e-Zaman.’
‘Just wait until Tamami becomes Ustad-e-Zaman,’ one of Tamami’s friends casually remarked.
Everyone in the akhara became silent when the words were uttered. Tamami’s friend realized his indiscretion and became quiet.”
The disruption of tradition creates many opportunities for conflict and meditation. Readers who are introduced to this conflict when it is burgeoning have had little experience with the tone set over many years by Ustad Ramzi, but they are engaged with the story in anticipation of dramatic change, so they share in misunderstandings like that of Tamami’s friend.
Indeed, much of the emotional heft of this story rests in misunderstandings and missed connections, in severences that might have been avoided.
“Tamami realized they had mistaken Ustad Ramzi’s embrace for a grappling lock. Ustad Ramzi also regarded the trainees with a surprised look.
Come see Ustad Ramzi and Tamami fight!’”
Two wrestlers in a lock could easily be mistaken for sharing an embrace, particularly out of context. Those embroiled in the conflict are less likely to miss the cues, but those on the margins are ever-shfting, uncertain as to the nature of what they are observing.
“That the ties between them could be so easily severed – and that there would be no attempt at a rapprochement… was something [he] could neither understand nor bear.” [This passage has been edited to avoid spoilers.]
Breaks in relationships, between men and between nations, lead to meditations on broader concerns about community and peace, leadership and balance.
“Did the essence of art not lie in creating a delicate harmony between strength and the opposing force? Did it not lie in keeping power bridled?”
Musharaff Ali Farooqi poses questions like this, but he does not present answers in plain-spoken prose. Instead the characters in his narrative ponder and press at their uncertainties, but there is no resolution.
“Ustad Ramzi no longer knew if it was grief he wanted to share or some guilt which he wished to confess to lighten his heart’s burden before her.”
What does one do in the wake of a tremendous loss, and how does one manage their own participation in the circumstances which led to it? How much sorrow must be borne alone and can some be eased in company? To what extent does one’s identity rest solely in contrast to a force with which one has long struggled?
Although the questions are often posed directly on the page in Between Clay and Dust, questions bubble beneath the surface of Neverhome as well. Both narratives are relatively short and one imagines many longer drafts having been painfully reduced to boil down these tales to their essentials.
Upon finishing, each book may leave readers with the sense of burden which follows the reading of stories about war and conflict, but without the declarative tone that sometimes accompanies such stories; these works also embody a sense of much-to-discuss, which does not lessen the weight of their stories but it does sway the balance towards hope and away from despair.