Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2022

The Golden Legend, by Nadeem Aslam

Strange: Determined to make a bit of space on the A shelf, I picked up this novel with fond memories of British-Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) which was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award.  But now, having read The Golden Legend (2017) I’ve checked my reading journal and realised that I must have confused Maps for Lost Lovers with something else.  Like The Golden Legend, Maps for Lost Lovers was very well-written and perhaps it was an authentic portrait of Pakistani immigrants who despise the country that’s hosting them while they make money, but I did not enjoy reading it and I found The Golden Legend very confronting as well.  My reading journal tells me that I didn’t much like The Wasted Vigil (2008) either, but I’d forgotten reading it, so I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this author’s work again.

He seems to have made a career out of writing about dysfunctional Islam.  Maps is about an immigrant Pakistani community in England; Vigil is about Islam in Afghanistan, and The Golden Legend is about terrorism, cruelty, corruption and sectarianism in Pakistan.  There is also love across religious divides in Aslam’s fictional city of Zamaran, but as the novel traces the ill-fortune of Nargis after her husband Massud is killed in a terrorist attack, it portrays a culture of inescapable violence and intimidation.

This is the blurb, and, based on what I’ve seen in the media, the religious intolerance does sound uncannily realistic:

When shots ring out on the Grand Trunk Road, Nargis’s life begins to crumble around her. Her husband, Massud–a fellow architect–is caught in the crossfire and dies before she can confess her greatest secret to him.

Under threat from a powerful military-intelligence officer, who demands that she pardon her husband’s American killer, Nargis fears that the truth about her past will soon be exposed. For weeks someone has been broadcasting people’s secrets from the minaret of the local mosque, and, in a country where even the accusation of blasphemy is a currency to be bartered, the mysterious broadcasts have struck fear in Christians and Muslims alike.

When the loudspeakers reveal a forbidden romance between a Muslim cleric’s daughter and Nargis’s Christian neighbour, Nargis finds herself trapped in the centre of the chaos tearing their community apart.

There is so much brutality and violence in the novel, that the sense of the characters being trapped in a claustrophobic web becomes overwhelming.  It’s one of those books where it’s necessary to stop reading and do something else for a while in order to lessen the horror.  It makes for a disjointed reading experience. There are passages of great beauty, and the characters are resilient and brave, but their island refuge is only a tentative kind of survival and it seems inevitable that the bigots will get them in the end.

Very depressing reading…

For other opinions, see Lara Feigel in The Guardian, Francine Prose in the NYT, and Jane Wallace in the Asian Review of Books.

Author: Nadeem Aslam
Title: The Golden Legend
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2017
ISBN: 9780571330744, pbk., 264 pages
Source: personal library


  1. I don’t even remember hearing about this author, but I probably have on your blog. His subject matter sounds interesting in the sense that it’s something I’ve not read much about, but I’m unlikely to find time to slot it in so I’m glad you’ve done that work for me!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL Sue, I think you probably have read about atrocities by fundamentalists in Pakistan, what this book does is make you care terribly about the people they target…


  2. I think I tolerate graphic violence in books and movies less and less as I get older Lisa. I’m not sure of the reason for that, I always disliked it, but now it’s enough to stop me reading/watching.


    • I wonder… I wonder if a generation brought up on those violent US movies has more tolerance for it?


  3. Hm. Sounds a bit too dark for me at the moment. I just read Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Burnt Shadows’, so have had my fill of dark and violent fiction for a while.


    • Yes, that was a difficult book too…


  4. Oh this sounds too depressing. I wonder if you mixed up A Map for Lost Lovers with AHDAF SOUEIF – The Map of Love, because I saw that title and thought “ohh the Egyptian one” then realised it wasn’t, then trawled through my blog for which one I’d mixed it up with.


    • Yes, that’s it, that was a lovely book… I’d better make sure I have these two authors clear in my mind in future!
      Thank you:)


  5. Definitely sounds like this would be too much for me right now, despite the necessity for us to be aware of the horrors in the world…


  6. I don’t think this is for me. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand, but too much graphic violence is not something I really want to read. I did enjoy The Map of Love though, so thank you to you and Liz for ensuring I don’t confuse the two authors!


  7. I’ve only read his first (Season of the Rainbirds) and I remember some sombre bits but mostly the beauty of his prose and his sensibility. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his work (Ali at Heavenali has recommended at least one other along the way, maybe two).


    • Ah, ok, I’ll have a look there, thanks


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