Wednesday, September 1, 2010

REVIEW: Born Under a Million Shadows by Andrea Busfield


A moving tale of the triumph of the human spirit amidst heartbreaking tragedy, told through the eyes of a charming, impish, and wickedly observant Afghan boy

The Taliban have withdrawn from Kabul’s streets, but the long shadows of their regime remain. In his short life, eleven-year-old Fawad has known more grief than most: his father and brother have been killed, his sister has been abducted, and Fawad and his mother, Mariya, must rely on the charity of parsimonious relatives to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence.

Ever the optimist, Fawad hopes for a better life, and his dream is realized when Mariya finds a position as a housekeeper for a charismatic Western woman, Georgie, and her two foreign friends. The world of aid workers and journalists is a new one for Fawad, and living with the trio offers endless curiosities—including Georgie’s destructive relationship with the powerful Afghan warlord Haji Khan, whose exploits are legendary. Fawad grows resentful and worried, until he comes to learn that love can move a man to act in surprisingly good ways. But life, especially in Kabul, is never without peril, and the next calamity Fawad must face is so devastating that it threatens to destroy the one thing he thought he could never lose: his love for his country.

A big-hearted novel infused with crackling wit, Andrea Busfield’s brilliant debut captures the hope and humanity of the Afghan people and the foreigners who live among them.

About the Author

Andrea Busfield is a British journalist who first traveled to Afghanistan to cover the fall of the Taliban in 2001 as a reporter for the News of the World. She is now a full-time writer living in Bad Ischl, Austria. Born Under a Million Shadows is her first book.

Quick Facts for Andrea Busfield located on Macmillan Books:

Where are you from?

Who are your favorite writers?
Louis de Bernieres, Colin Bateman, Joseph Heller, Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende. To be honest I’m a pick n mix kind of reader.

Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Birds Without Wings (Louis de Bernieres)
Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)

What are your hobbies and outside interests?
Music, friends, my family and my dog.

What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
“Don’t read beauty magazines – they will make you feel ugly.” Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) by Baz Luhrmann.

What is your favorite quote?
“All right, I'm coming out. Any man I see out there, I'm gonna shoot him. Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I'm not only gonna kill him, but I'm gonna kill his wife, all his friends, and burn his damn house down.”—Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.

What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
Is this autobiographical?

What inspired you to write your first book?
Love – for my boyfriend, and for a country that deserves so much more.

Where do you write?
On my lap on a laptop. I don’t have much furniture!

Five Books Andrea Busfield Can't Live Without:

An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot
Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): A True Story of Hell on Earth by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson
Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

My Thoughts
My name is Fawad, and my mother tells me I was born under the shadow of the Taliban.

Because she said no more, I imagined her stepping out of the sunshine and into the dark, crouching in a corner to protect the stomach that was hiding me, while a man with a stick watched over us, ready to beat me into the world.
This haunting excerpt is how we are introduced to Fawad.

Fawad is a charming boy. Smart, good-humored, brave and strong, you find yourself praying that life goes well for him. I mean, things are stacked against him, and you really want him to find a way to have everything he dreams of.

This book portrays the complex and dark beauty of Afghanistan's face, as well as its dark underbelly. At times you find yourself in awe at the kindness of the people, the love they have for their country, their humor and passion. At other times you cringe at the cruelty, the blatant disregard for humanity, the ugly complexity of their hierarchical and tribal society and its tenuous relationship with surrounding countries, primarily Pakistan.

This is a country that has spent much of its existence "occupied", under the rule of some governing power that is unwanted.
"...the Taliban fight goes on in the south against Afghans and foreigners; and in the streets the adults beat boys, the boys beat smaller boys, and everyone beats donkeys and dogs." (p. 60-61)
"My mother told me that when the Taliban originally came marching from the south to lay claim to Kabul, they were welcomed like saviors. The capital had become a city of rubble after the Russians left because the victorious mujahideen had turned on one another, fighting like dogs over a piece of meat-- and Kabul was that piece of meat. In the chaos and confusion of civil war, crime was everywhere; shops were made to pay special taxes, homes were taken, people were murdered, and their daughters were raped. But when the Taliban came, it all stopped. Order was brought, and the people were grateful. However, as Spandi's father said, you cannot know a man's real intentions in only one night, and over the years the Taliban showed their true colors. They stopped women from working, they wouldn't let girls go to school, they roamed the streets beating people with sticks, they jailed men with short beards, they banned kite flying and music, they chopped off hands, they crushed people under walls, and they shot people in the football stadium. They had freed Afghanistan from war, but they locked up our people in a religion we no longer recognized..." (p. 46-57)

There is such a dichotomy in the rich tapestry of Afghanistan. I just can't get over the complexity found in its simplicity. Or is it simplicity in its complexity? My mind is shaky with exhaustion in trying to wrap itself around it.

This story has a wealth of wonderful characters, from housemates Georgie, James and May, streetmates Spandi and Jamilla, the dark and tormented beauty of Haji Khan (who himself could represent for me the country of Afghanistan), the hope of Shir Ahmad, the quirky and endearing character of Pir Hederi, and even Pir the Madman.

One thing of note was the way that Fawad's own mother practically disappears from the picture for much of the story. After an illness takes her away for a time, you barely hear of her any further, even after she returns, until the end of the story. Fawad spends his time with Georgie and some of the other supporting characters. It kind of reminded me of what you see happen in many TV shows. There will be a storyline, like a baby being born into the family, but once the storyline plays out and the baby is born, it seems to sort of disappear. You don't see it anymore nor hear too much about it (anyone remember the TV show Friends? That's what happened after Rachel had her baby.) So Fawad's mother becomes an inconsequential character about halfway through the story. But I guess that's okay. After all, this is Fawad's story. And I can understand why this happened. His mother is not as integral a character, and if Fawad were an adult, her absence would go unnoticed. However since he is a child, I found her absence from his story striking, but perhaps necessary in order to keep her from clouding his story with motherly pursuits (as mothers are wont to do).

At the end of the book that I received there was an interview with the author Andrea Busfield. She shared some startling statistics and striking imagery of Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan has the world's second-highest infant mortality rate.
  • The average life expectancy is forty-four.
  • Abject poverty and the image of a child walking barefoot in the snow.
  • There is no "dating" social life in Afghanistan. Marriages are typically arranged by the family, and "dating" would be forbidden.
Yet the author speaks so fondly of the country and its people. "It would be hard to find a more hospitable place on earth than Afghanistan."

She says in her interview:
"...I wanted to capture the beauty found there-- the fun, the laughter, the love. Therefore, I opted for a romantic plot and decided it should be narrated by a hero who was still young enough to see the good in life-- and bounce back from tragedy."
And when asked what she hopes her readers take away from this novel, she replies:
"Ultimately, that Afghans are deserving of our continued support-- and as the last page turns that they discover a little piece of Afghanistan in their hearts."
Mission accomplished-- on all accounts.

In the end, I'm left with hope. Hope for Fawad and the realization of his dreams, hope for Jamilla and her happiness and freedom from the tyranny of men, hope for impossible romance, hope for compassion amidst such cruelty and beauty amid such horror-- hope for Afghanistan.

Andrea Busfield-- I think I'm in love with you...

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10

(My thanks to Jason of Holt, Henry & Company for the book in exchange for my honest review.)

1 comment:

Jo-Jo said...

I've noticed this book in a few places but after reading your review I know I would love it. Thanks for sharing it!