Peter Hobbs’s writing tends towards the allegorical. His debut novel, The Short Day Dying, concerned a 19th-century Cornish priest whose struggles took on vast spiritual significance. This was followed by a wide-ranging collection of short stories, 2008’s I Could Ride All Day in my Cool Blue Train, which featured drowned worlds, dreams and men who studied zebra’s bottoms for a living.
This novella, set in Pakistan, takes its cue not from the zaniness of the stories, but from his weighty first novel. It concerns the random cruelty of life; the savagery of corruption; and the cathartic nature of love. It takes the form of a letter of sorts, to a lost beloved, who was torn from the writer before they could develop a relationship.
Born in the comfort of an orchard, he falls one day for a girl at a fruit stall: “Beside a tray of apricots – I remember because their colour was reflected onto the white silk of your dupatta.” He gives her a pomegranate – the first fruit, in Islamic legend. But they are Adam and Eve; and will soon be thrown out of paradise.
Alas for the boy, the girl’s father is an important local politician, who doesn’t take kindly to a boy making up to her; after the boy confronts him, he is forcibly removed, and imprisoned without trial.
Hobbs writes with clarity and purity, able to detail the horrors of his protagonist’s torture as convincingly as he can describe the beauty of a garden. The lovers’ sundering asks the question: “if even we must be divided from one another, what hope is there for the rest of the world?”
It isn’t all bleak, though. The hero finds succour in unexpected places: a fellow prisoner’s tales of actresses; the kindness of a stranger. And if the world, when his tribulations end, is not the same as when he left it, then he too is different. In Hobbs’s allegory, all men are tested in the fires; few come out – but those who do emerge renewed. It’s something that his Cornish preacher would certainly have understood.