Monday, 8 June 2009

A love letter to Afghanistan

Review - Born Under a Million Shadows, by Andrea Busfield

The bottom paragraph on the back cover for this, Busfield's debut novel, describes it as a 'humorous and harrowing love letter to a troubled land' and you'd do well to remember that phrase - love letter - as you read it.

Sage advice to would-be novelists looking to snare an agent or publisher is full of 'show, don't tell', particularly early on in a manuscript, and the need to hook the reader immediately, to produce the goods and induce that 'move to the sofa' moment for said agent/publisher. And go easy on the back story, whatever you do.

But they say rules are there to be broken, and Busfield seems intent on doing just that. Million Shadows is narrated first person by eleven-year-old Fawad, a boy born in Kabul during the time of the Taliban. It opens very quietly, as Fawad describes life with his friends on the streets of Kabul, working the foreigners, his fractured home that he shares with his mother, his aunt and her brood.

It's scene-setting - beautifully done scene-setting at that - but after ten or fifteen pages I had one thought in my head... when's this thing going to start? What I hadn't realised was, it had. And it had the hooks in, too, but all with such subtleness that by the time the 'story' kicked in I was unaware that the author had slung a bag over my head and carried me off into her world.

The event which sparks the plot into action comes when Mariya lands a job as housekeeper for Georgie, an intelligent and sexy western woman who shares a home with two friends, James, a journalist, and May, an engineer. Fawad, understandably, develops a huge crush on Georgie, who has relationship issues of her own - she's in love with an Afghan warlord, Haji Khan, who Fawad soon learns isn't the kind of bloke you want the girl you love so achingly to be hanging around with.

The story unfolds slowly - Fawad tries to act as matchmaker between his mother and a guard; he gets a job working in a small store with a blind shopkeeper; the three westerners take Fawad under their wing and introduce him, unintentionally, to alcohol and sex education; and he watches, helpless, as Georgie's love for Haji intensifies before, inevitably, their world threatens to break apart around them.

Busfield first experienced Afghanistan while working as a journalist for the News of the World covering the fall of the Taliban. In interviews she does not hide the fact that she fell in love with the country, so much so that she made it her home, and this knowledge permeates everything that transpires to Fawad and his friends. It also explains the 'love letter' reference, because that's exactly what this is. Plot is secondary here; it's a look at a year in Fawad's life, a momentous year during which he grows from a child into a young man. A love letter from Busfield to a trouble-torn but beautiful country.

Her style might not suit everyone, but for those who are happy to wait for their riches there is much to admire here. She manages to give a history lesson without preaching, and outlines the politics without being political. Fawad isn't just a fully-rounded character, he all but steps from the pages and grabs you by the hand. The relationship between Georgie and Khan is deftly handled, when it could have come across heavy-handed and cliched, and most of the supporting cast - particularly Pir Hederi, the blind shopkeeper - are a delight. There's also some real humour on show here, and not just the obvious situational comedy, such as the incident involving Fawad, a knife and a Frenchman's ass.
There are issues which detract. Some of the word choices for Fawad's internal monologue feel awkward and out of place and at times the dialogue, especially between the westerners, doesn't work; it feels clumsy, almost forced in order to propel the story onwards, and this is in stark contrast to the exchanges between Fawad and friends, not to mention some of the long descriptive passages which bring the country and its natives to colourful life.

As debut novels go, Million Shadows is a fine effort, a beautiful, slow-burning story of unconditional love, tragedy and, ultimately, life-affirming hope. Well worth a read.

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