The title of this taut new novel from Aamer Hussein comes from a legend, in which clouds carry messages of love from separated lovers across the world.
Relationships, and their varying levels of permanence, are thus the main theme, as we follow the narrator, Mehran (who appears sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, adding to the novel’s dreamlike quality), in his tangled encounters.
Mehran’s youth, as a scion of a grand family in India, prepares him for adulthood in that he learns never to put too much faith in friends: they come and go, for him, like clouds, as he switches from city to city, country to country. His cultured relatives feed him poetry and stories; he ends by studying Urdu and Persian in London.
Hussein’s evocation of Mehran’s early childhood is precise and therefore of almost photographic vividness. The extraordinary – Mehran’s mother has shot a crocodile, while his aunt has bagged a tiger – rubs against the everyday, as the children long for rain and Enid Blyton. This mixing of the magical and the mundane is also key to the book.
In London, Mehran finds his first fixed friendships, with Riccarda, an older, married woman who loves dancing till dawn, yet who has a son not much younger than Mehran himself; and with Marco, a wild, good-looking Italian boy who gets all the girls, and yet with whom Mehran has the tiniest of erotic frissons.
Mehran, always aware that nothing lasts, is wary of investing anything in either of them; but against his own instincts, he becomes inextricably and irrevocably drawn to both. (Of course they don’t get on, and when Mehran and Riccarda become lovers, Marco’s jealousy causes some finely-wrought friction.)
The narration is slow-moving, describing day-to-day events like going to the theatre or sitting in cafés; Hussein is a master of the significant moment, as when Mehran wakes to find Marco in his bed, or when Riccarda fails to answer a phone call.
The most important figure in Mehran’s life, though, is Marvi, a woman with whom he ends up having an intense affair that turns into a years-long relationship.
She is destructive, though, like the bad fairy in one of the stories Mehran was told as a boy; Mehran remains tied to her, as if he has been enchanted.
Unable to truly reach his other friends – clouds being a less viable means of communication in the real world – he watches his life, and Marvi’s, crumble. Hussein’s understated prose is imbued with a hidden ferocity, just as under Mehran’s poised exterior tumble and roil passions he is too afraid to release. The eventual shattering tragedies of the novel are dealt with in a superbly poignant fashion.
There is magic in the everyday, suggests Hussein; in a phone call, or a letter, or even a cloud – and it is to those moments, however fleeting, that we should cling, even though all else is destroyed.
This book is available from Liberty Books