Over two days, Patricia McArdle’s slightly overlong debut novel, Farishta, still managed to hold my frantic attention. As I shut the book well past midnight, some climatic scenes continued to play in my head, rather like a film — a credit to the author’s graphic writing skills.
This retired American diplomat’s semi-autobiographical novel mirroring her own (and others’) experiences at her final posting in northern Afghanistan is an intense and compelling read, though more of an insightful and informative memoir. Either way, I happily recommend it.
Part-love story (with a touch of Jane Austen), part-war-zone thriller, mostly an informed, empathetic account of a year in post-9/11 Afghanistan, Farishta can be read as an insider-outsider view of an ancient society struggling to survive.
Circa 2004, Farishta’s protagonist, 47-year-old diplomat Angela Morgan, reluctantly sets out on her new posting in Northern Afghanistan, far from the fight-zone in the south, yet an unstable and dangerous place. Angela’s reluctance is understandable, for, she still occasionally experiences post-traumatic stress, 21 years after her double loss — her young diplomat husband lost to a Beirut bomb and consequent miscarriage. The intervening years have been a mixed broth — recuperation in the US, stints in the Soviet Union and the Americas, languages learnt, a few unsatisfactory affairs of the heart, and ultimately backroom boredom-cum-isolation at State Department Headquarters, Washington. And now, Angela simply wishes to survive this year, and then, move on hopefully to a safe pre-retirement posting in London.
In her initial days at Mazar-i-Sharif PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Territory), Angela — the lone American representative at this British controlled unit — finds herself on unsure terrain. There is a frustrating ambiguity about her duties, and she feels unwelcome in an all-male unit working in a male-dominated society, where women are simply blue-burka’d shadows flitting by. Afghan warlords deny her the respect owed to her as a diplomat; the intriguing British major is (initially) a hostile and skeptical colleague (but later a Darcy-like support); her linguistic skills with local language Dari need to be suppressed for strategic reasons, causing Angela much anguish in her special relationship with her honest interpreter, the young Rahim and yet, enterprising Angela survives all this and more. She surprises and delights her colleagues with her requisite and secret skills, wins respect from all who matter, and even finds herself a role beyond her duties.
Living up to her name, Angela becomes a farishta (angel in Dari language), to many that she comes in contact with — and none more so than to Afghanistan’s barely visible women and children. Observing young children forced to forsake school for the task of carrying heavy loads of firewood, Angela draws upon her girl-scout memories to develop a low-tech solar oven project that helps Afghan women lead easier lives. The underused diplomat feels fulfilled.
The story moves gradually towards its fated climax, helped along the way by a sterling cast of mostly well-fleshed characters, painted with precision — Nilofar, the brave young student-activist cum saviour of young girls; the charming French archaeologist; the too charming Russian diplomat; the very young and vulnerable British drivers; the Toyota ‘Beast’ vehicle; the colourful and intimidating warlords cum generals; the earnest Rahim, Major Davies (Angela’s own angel) — they all play their parts in this tale about the physical and emotional reconstruction of a torn land.
However, what matters ultimately, other than the story itself — is the wealth of information and insight one gets from an author who has lived and worked in this troubled country. Patricia McArdle uses memory, imagination and language to offer a ringside view of real-world geopolitics: the inside stories about Soviet-US involvement in this strategic landlocked region; the ecological, economic and emotional cost of such meddling — it is a portrayal done in a manner that holds the reader’s interest.
So, despite minor quibbles — some pruning needed, a character left hanging — there is much to appreciate and understand.
The writing is evocative; Angela inhales “a mix of cooking fires, grilled meat, crushed spices, mud, sweating pack animals, and the rusting detritus of Afghanistan’s many wars.”
Patricia McArdle’s novel is a healing touch, well needed in these apocalyptic times.