First aired on The Sunday Edition (27/05/12)
British writer Peter Hobbs is neither a criminal nor an expert on crime, but in a way, he has experience with prisons. At 23, while travelling in Pakistan, he contracted a mysterious virus that attacked his immune system and left him incapacitated for a decade with chronic fatigue syndrome and then depression. He wasn't able to work at the British Foreign Office, which had just recruited him. He could barely see his friends. He was confined to his home, a prisoner of his body's frailty.
But during his slow recovery, he started writing. Hobbs published his first novel, The Short Day Dying,
in 2005. Then he published a collection of short stories. Recently, he was struck by an idea somewhat inspired by his own experience of battling his disease: to write a story about someone rediscovering his freedom and identity after years of being locked away.
"In a way the book came as a complete surprise to me," Hobbs said during a recent interview on The Sunday Edition. "I hadn't planned to write the book at all. I had been working on something very different. And one day it arrived almost entire in my head. I wish novels came to me like that more often."
Set in Pakistan, In the Orchard, the Swallows
is a story of star-crossed love about a young man (the narrator) who couldn't help but fall for a girl he shouldn't have. The young man, a farmer's son, idealizes Saba, the daughter of a local politician, but it's an attraction the father couldn't abide. The young man (whose name is never mentioned in the story) is thrown into a prison where he is subjected to torture and misery for more than a decade.
The story begins with him leaving the prison, and chronicles his journey towards physical and emotional recovery and making sense of this dark period of suffering in his life.
The idea inspired Hobbs, but it also concerned him. Would critics accuse him of cultural appropriation, or misrepresenting people in Pakistan?
"I knew the narrator had to be a young Pakistani man, and I was aware that it might get a very mixed reception because of that, so I was very careful while writing it to try and make sure that the character was true and that I believed in him."
But Hobbs also felt strongly that part of what novelists do is to imagine the lives of other people, even if those lives are culturally different. And ultimately, Hobbs was so taken by the story he said he was compelled to put it on the page.
"It was very clear and insistent, and eventually I felt I had to sit down and write it."