It’s not easy to categorise The Scatter Here Is Too Great, because the book isn’t really one single story. In fact, it’s several; with a rich array of narrators and scenarios explored through one connecting premise. And as a storyteller, Bilal Tanweer veers from folksy, melodic interludes with hints of the supernatural to those that are more banal and grounded in politics and harsh realities.
Bringing to mind Colum McCann’s award–winning Let the Great World Spin, this is a tale of intersecting lives, contemplating how we all of us live side by side yet remain largely separate – until, that is, something extraordinary occurs. A debut novel by Tanweer, a Karachi-born writer who studied creative writing at Columbia University and has already been noted by Granta magazine, it’s not for everyone. The stories – all nine of them – hinge roughly off an explosion at a bus station in the middle of the Pakistani city, but it’s a loose link.
So while I was transfixed by some of the vignettes – the tale of a teenage couple escaping the strictures of Pakistani for a day by the sea, for example, or the young man whose impending wedding is thrown off course by his involvement in the blast – others I found less engaging, for example the tale of an ageing communist “for whom family was largely an inconvenience”.
These are essentially short stories tied together, with largely anonymous characters in whose lives the reader briefly intrudes, but it left me wanting. I was frustrated that there was not time to get to know the characters I wanted to learn more about – what happened to the girl whose grandmother discovered her illicit flirtation, for example – or even to comprehend what really led each individual to be at the bus station on one fateful day. Tanweer is clearly a gifted storyteller writer, but I felt several of these characters deserved a book all to themselves.
Nevertheless, his prose is exceptional, and where he really succeeds is in conjuring up Karachi as it is, was and perhaps could be again. “That’s how we lose the city,” he writes, in one particularly poignant moment. “When what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what there was.”
You can feel what it is like to be a passenger on a scorching bus ride, the onlooker in the slum that does not officially exist but is all too real for its inhabitants, or the truant running from the police; the smells, sounds and sights he describes are easily imagined. And while some of the stories were quickly forgotten, others will stay with me. An impressive and challenging read; one that makes you wonder what story the author will decide to tell next.
The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer is published by Random House, and available to buy online here.