The Pathless Sky
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Europa Editions (October 27, 2015)
By: Chaitali Sen
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
This is a fascinating Rorschach Inkblot test of a book. Set in a troubled, fictitious nation, The Pathless Sky tells the story of a young couple, John and Mariam, who meet in college and form a relationship of estrangement, long silences, and broken promises. John pursues his doctorate in geology while Mariam becomes a skillful research librarian. Both long for the other and both use their professions to explore their strange country. Neither seems to reach a coherent understanding of either his own inner world or the world in which they live. Still, they persevere; they work. Mariam helps to support her father after his stroke. John performs his required year of military service. Eventually they marry and try to form a family while the world around then collapses into increasing unrest and oppression.
These are people with good intent and a lucid intelligence who try hard to do the right thing — only it is extremely difficult to know what that right thing is. As part of her work, Mariam archives the reports of the War Crimes Commission. The result is that:
She saw students reading in their carrels, and she saw people exhumed from concrete burials whose skin and clothing were covered in limestone dust. . . . She saw military squads racing each other to execute who neighborhoods of people. . . . Sometimes she thought these efforts at documentation could elevate human consciousness and put an end to all war. Then she remembered how big the world was, how pregnant it was with war at every moment.
John and Mariam’s lives are made even more difficult by the fact that they live in different parts of a country which appears to be on the brink of a full scale civil war. “Theirs was a country of firm boundaries not meant to be crossed, or rather, he didn’t have the strength to withstand the difficulty of crossing them.” Mariam’s home seems vaguely Muslim, but she seems to have no religion herself and no understanding as to why her grandmother once wore a hijab.
Much could be made of The Pathless Sky. Some readers will take its explorations of human and geological history as an invitation to think more deeply about the nature of time. John and Mariam’s long, difficult love affair will challenge others to consider their notions of what it means to be in love, while other readers will be transfixed by how family and country slowly reveal themselves as the insidious, deep reaching forces they are. I see this book as a moving testimony to what it means to be a young adult. John and Mariam both keep trying to move forward, but there is no clear path and little guidance as to either the deep feelings within or the dangers imposed from without. Still, they grow more and more conscious of just how immense the world can be, and they reach towards its possibilities. They learn to accept their own love for one another, no matter how great their burdens become. Precise, understated, filled with obstacles and confusion, The Pathless Sky nonetheless stands as quiet testimony to the value of simply not giving up. The book ends with Mariam’s mother. “‘It’s quite lovely, isn’t it?’ she asked Omar, wondering why there was sadness to everything that was beautiful.”