Finding the joy in Afghanistan – Andrea Busfield’s ‘Born Under a Million Shadows’

Well – not sure what has happened to October, but it is almost over and we are hurtling towards the end of our month highlighting books set in Afghanistan. But if you have just enough time to squeeze in one more, then please, please give Andrea Busfield’s Born Under a Million Shadows a go.

Like the Kite Runner, this book gives us a look at Afghanistan through the eyes of a child – eleven year old Fawad. But Fawad has had a much tougher time of things than the Kite Runner’s Amir. His father and brother have been killed, his sister has been abducted and he and his mother Mariya are forced to rely on family charity.

The opening line of the novel is enough to send a shiver down your spine…

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

But despite this, and the inevitable horrors and bloodshed of any book set in Afghanistan, Born Under a Million Shadows is a delight.

Things look up for Fawad when Mariya becomes the live-in housekeeper for three westerners — NGO worker Georgie, James the journalist and lesbian engineer May. He is understandably suspicious of his mother’s new employers, and takes it upon himself to spy on them, setting the scene for some wonderful interaction and misunderstandings.

The novel is filled with Fawad’s wry humor and observations. Horrified to discover that foreign women don’t know how to wash clothes without the help of a machine, Fawad questions his mother about Georgie’s other domestic deficiencies.

‘Does she sew?’
‘No’
‘Can she cook?’
‘No’
‘Does she have a husband?’
‘No’
‘I’m not suprised.’ – p26
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And he is a bit perturbed by the foreigners’ Christmas and how it compares with their own celebrations for the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
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“What we don’t do, however, is drink alcohol from the moment we get up until the moment we fall into bed – or, in James’s case, on the stairs. And after attending my first celebration of Jesus’s birthday I now understand why everybody needs two days off work to recover….As a Muslim I respect the foreigners’ Jesus and I like the fact that they celebrate his birthday even if they have got their facts muddled. However, it was hard to believe that for such a big day in their calendar I never once heard my friends mention Jesus’s name. Although James shouted ‘Christ’ when he slipped on the stairs.” – p103-104

Throughout the novel, Fawad is exposed to a whole lot of perplexing aspects of western culture – alcohol, Christmas, Wikipedia and the Sex Pistols just to name a few – and tries to rationalize how these fit into his own beliefs and upbringing. And while his reactions are so often those of a child, it doesn’t take long to realize that Fawad is a little wiser than the rest of us when it comes to understanding what really matters in the world.

“Beautifully written, touching and laced throughout with humor…. A stunningly assured debut novel from a writer who looks set to be a big star.”—The News of the World (UK)

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We have read novels before that give us detail of life in Afghanistan, but what I enjoyed about this book was its glimpse into the way locals and foreigners are forced to interact – at least in Kabul. It reminds us that it’s never clear cut, motives are not always obvious and that beneath it all, there is often genuine good will to make a difficult situation work.

There are mentions of contemporary issues and developments – Afghanistan’s first elections, NGO programs and the Karzai government – as well as references to the past. And I’m pleased to see The Buddhas of Bamiyan make another literary appearance (something I believe is mandatory in all novels about Afghanistan!).

“Readers who like to explore other cultures and current events through fiction will find here an intriguing picture of contemporary Afghanistan.”—Library Journal

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Andrea Busfield, who lived in Afghanistan for several years, has managed to write a novel which provides a bit of everything. By the end of Born Under a Million Shadows I had learnt something, had had a good cry and laughed more than I have for a good long-while.

I really don’t want to give away too much about the story, but it is one filled with love and romance (more than one romance in fact!), heartache, and at times almost inexpressible joy. There are warlords, cashmere goats that need combing and entrepreneurial shop-keepers who offer “Free Delivery and Cak”. There is also a host of truly lovable characters, you really won’t want to say good-bye to.

Here is what Busfield has to say in this interview with The Guardian:

“I don’t think you could find two more different books than The Kite Runner and Born Under a Million Shadows,” she says. “Mine is quite humorous I think. I wanted to capture something different; I didn’t want to do another tragic tale about Afghan people.”

In this, I think she really has succeeded. There is tragedy, but the novel is infiltrated with the black humor that is typical of societies that  have had to find a way to deal with the almost endless despair of their daily lives.

As Fawad’s mother Mariyam tells him…

“Of course, that was long before the Taliban came. Now look at us! We don’t even own a tree from which we can hang ourselves.” – p15.

You’ll need to brace yourself for some colorful street language and gut-wrenching descriptions – but I would be very surprised if you didn’t turn the last page of ‘Born Under a Million Shadows’ and want to start it all over again.

So go on – as I have left it so late to write this post, you have special dispensation to let your Afghanistan journey spill over into the beginning of November.. pick up a copy of Born Under a Million Shadows today, and let us know what you thought of it.

And I leave you with this, from Fawad.

“The foreigners can keep their talk of beautiful scenery and traditional goodness because all of us would swap it in a heartbeat for just one moment’s peace and it’s high time the sorrow that came to plant itself in on our soil just packed up and went away to terrorize someone else.” – p99

Suzi

Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.

Turkey
Greece
Iran
England
Ireland
Jamaica
Pakistan
Russia
Spain
Thailand

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