Salma’s debut novel is a moving and beautifully-written must-read, says Sian Norris
Salma, a renowned Tamil poet who has faced obscenity charges and violent threats in her homeland of India, has written what can only be described as an extraordinary novel in The Hour Past Midnight. It achieves a richness and poetry in its language that I haven’t found in any other novels that I have read recently, whilst maintaining a tightness of plot, strong and emotive characterisation, and a heartfelt exploration of the lives of Tamil village women living in modern India.
The novel tells the story of a community of Muslim women and men living in a Tamil village, from the perspectives of the women. The book sings with different voices, from the child Rabia, a girl who is about to come of age but as yet is still a young girl, her mother and aunt Zohra and Rahima, and the cousins, neighbours and women who make up their small and intimate community. It is a book that rings with laughter and female friendship, and yet can quickly turn heartbreaking and frightening. The novel’s action takes place over a couple of weeks, as the families prepare for Ramadan and the marriage of Rahima’s daughter Wahida to an older man she has never met.
What I loved about Salma’s writing was just how evocative and richly detailed the description was. I felt that I could walk into the village tomorrow and I would know where everyone’s houses were, would know all the women as well and as intimately as I know my own friends, would be able to play with Rabia and Madina and chat warmly to Rahima about preparing for Wahida’s wedding, complain with Farida about her mother, giggle and gossip with best friends/rivals Rafiza and Mumtaz. The novel immerses you in the world of these women, immerses you in the life of the village, examines the minutiae of the daily lives of the women and their relationships and inner feelings so fully, that by the end of the novel I felt a sense of loss that I was no longer part of the book. I could have willed the book to continue forever, endlessly exploring the lives and learning more about the characters.