Monday, 6 July 2015

Review: 'The Book of Gold Leaves' by Mirza Waheed

The Book of Gold Leaves had me fascinated the moment that I read the blurb. There was something lyrical and magical to the novel. Besides that I have been fascinated by the culture of the Kashmir area and was really happy to find a book set there. Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Books for providing me with an edition of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/10/2014
Publisher: Penguin Books
Mirza Waheed's extraordinary new novel The Book of Gold Leaves is a heartbreaking love story set in war-torn Kashmir. In an ancient house in the city of Srinagar, Faiz paints exquisite Papier Mache pencil boxes for tourists. Evening is beginning to slip into night when he sets off for the shrine. There he finds the woman with the long black hair. Roohi is prostrate before her God. She begs for the boy of her dreams to come and take her away. Roohi wants a love story. An age-old tale of love, war, temptation, duty and choice, The Book of Gold Leaves is a heartbreaking tale of a what might have been, what could have been, if only. ' 
I loved it. The voice is lyrical, to match the beauty of Kashmir, and yet it is tinged with melancholy and grief, as is the story it tells' Nadeem Aslam (on The Collaborator) 'Waheed's prose burns with the fever of anger and despair; the scenes in the valley are exceptional, conveying, a hallucinatory living nightmare that has become an everyday reality for Kashmiris' Metro (on The Collaborator) 
Waheed's novel is one that is infused with sentimentality, in a good way. Each page holds a beautiful description of flowers, smells, little streets, whispers exchanged by lovers in the dark, etc. As such, The Book of Gold Leaves really takes the reader on a visual and emotional journey. This is largely done through the perspective of Waheed's two main characters, Faiz and Roohi. Their love story is the heart of the novel and very much keeps it going the way a heart keeps a body going. It is at the centre of the narrative and at the same time is key to holding the novel together. The hope, love and despair that surrounds these two characters is developed beautifully by Waheed and his description of Kashmir and the surrounding areas only adds to making them and their story come to live.

There are a number of shifts within The Book of Gold Leaves which happen on different levels. On the one hand there is a constant shift between narrators between the different chapters, but on the other hand there is a continuing shift in atmosphere and tone. The decision to shift between narrators is always a tricky one since it can very easily go wrong. Not every character is equally interesting to readers and a narrative can easily run out of steam if the wrong character is narrating a crucial scene. In The Book of Gold Leaves, none of this happened. All scenes were narrated by the right people, making sure that each narrator added something unique and definitive to their narration. It's a similar story with the shifts in atmosphere which occur throughout the novel. As Kashmir becomes more dangerous there is a sense of nostalgia to the simpler, earlier parts of the novel. As the characters find themselves in danger, the mood of the novel becomes darker. It must be a conscious choice on the side of the author, but the reader will find himself only recognizing the shift later on which makes for a very interesting reading experience.

The Book of Gold Leaves has a very interesting authorial presence. The reader and the author are, in many ways, one throughout the novel and operate as 'we'. We are an outside party and Waheed's occasional references to the way in which the story has come down to us is always interesting. Similarly, The Book of Gold Leaves is not historical in the sense that it recounts specific events and functions as a time-line. Rather, the novel feels as a memoir and ode to an area torn apart by war and chaos. This sense is aided by Waheed's descriptions but is also down to his way of presenting twists and turns in unexpected places, some of which are surprisingly shocking, giving the reader the feeling that the characters exist in a dangerous world.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed Waheed's The Book of Gold Leaves. It was a story that constantly draws you back in and is infused with a sense of beauty and longing that will remain with the reader for a long time. Although I would recommend it to historical fiction fans, I wouldn't classify it as historical fiction perse. It is full of fascinating characters of all backgrounds, classes and genders and purely for their development The Book of Gold Leaves is worth reading.


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