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The Denver Post: "it's just right for an afternoon in an easy chair, or under a pomegranate tree. Its powerful effects will last much longer."

Date: Feb 9 2014

Stories are built on characters, plots and ideas. But they are also built on sentences, rhythms and words. "In the Orchard, the Swallows," a stirring novella by Peter Hobbs, is a pristine example. His complete, nuanced command of language and all its beautiful waves and turns puts him concurrently in command of a reader's emotions, which become more fragile with each page turned.

"Love must be shared, or it is just madness." So says our narrator deep into this rich, focused story, which is written as a letter to a woman he loved, briefly, in their idyllic rural village studded with pomegranate orchards, before he was sent away for offending her family by his advances. He's gone for 15 years, an agonizing period during which he's never sure if his love for her is shared, or whether he is just mad.

Our protagonist recalls his younger days, when he was a teenager, growing up poor in a remote corner of contemporary Pakistan (a setting that calls to mind the Swat Valley, so often a subject of the news) and desperately in love with the daughter of the wealthiest, most powerful man in the village. For his affections, and for his reckless determination to act on them, he is taken away to a cold and brutal prison where he is chained to a crowded wall, with no access to fresh air or sanitation.

The smell clung to my dry throat, and seemed to penetrate every part of me. It saturated everything. It is true that, in time, one grows used to such things, but even as the body becomes accustomed to it, it learns the smell so completely that it becomes impossible to forget. The sensation is overwhelming, and allows nothing else to stand.

Our hero's inhumane incarceration would, in a lesser writer's hands, inspire only disgust and a closing of the book. But Hobbes and his irresistible words challenge us to find resonance in the experiences suffered by this now-gaunt and sickly Job and wonder whether he'd have been a better man had he not suffered so immensely. Without his trials, would he see so much promise, so much divinity, in a post-prison visit to the pomegranate grove?

Among the branches the pomegranates are ripening. The last of the petals from their flowers has fallen. I was tempted to take one, but they are not yet at their best, the colour of their skin not warm, and so I will be patient. The promise of a fruit freshly opened, its juice running from broken arils, is exquisite... I have longed to taste one again.

"In the Orchard, the Swallows" found a rapt British audience when it was published there last year, and should find readers stateside as well. At just 140 pages or so, it's just right for an afternoon in an easy chair, or under a pomegranate tree. Its powerful effects will last much longer.

-Tucker Shaw

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