The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, by Fatima Bhutto, Viking, RRP£14.99, 240 pages
Write what you know – the oldest bit of novelist’s advice – means one thing if you are an author of domestic dramas who lives in suburban London. It means something else entirely if you are Fatima Bhutto.
She is a member of Pakistan’s greatest, and most tragic, political dynasty, Her grandfather, the prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed by the military; her uncle was poisoned; her father was shot; and her aunt Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a bomb and bullet attack in 2007. This bloody family history was the central theme of Fatima’s memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, and it informs each page of her debut novel too.
The setting is Mir Ali, a town in the tribal belt of Waziristan. Mir Ali and the wild, forested countryside around it seethes against the Pakistani state; it is a place where it is “hard not to die”, where there are eyes everywhere and “people watched you even as you slept, as you dreamed”. This is a region the Pakistan army has tried to return to the body politic by brutality and force of numbers but that has turned, instead, into a place churning with violence, resentment and informers.
Bhutto’s action takes place over the space of four hours on the day before the Eid holiday. It opens with three brothers, Aman Erum, Sikandar and Hayat, having breakfast together. Each brother, we soon learn, represents one of three different ways of dealing with life in Mir Ali; one leaves, one stays and accepts, one stays and fights.
Aman Erum dreamt of setting up his own business and so headed for university in America. “Everything – success, comfort, respect – felt out of reach in Mir Ali,” he reasoned, and these are exactly the things he wants. The price of his student visa was high though – it not only separated him from his fiancée Samarra but entangled him with the security services. If Aman Erum consigns Mir Ali to his past, Sikandar has made it his present. A pragmatist, he has trained as a doctor, married Mina and does what he can to help the people of the town. Hayat, meanwhile, looks to Mir Ali’s future. His idealism has turned to fanaticism and he becomes a Shia separatist who plans terrorist strikes against the state. But, for all their different strengths, none of the three is as strong as the women of the story, Mina and Samarra.
Bhutto describes how injustice and generations of “disappearances” and atrocities have led to her characters’ various dispositions. Why does Mina turn up at the funerals of strangers and create a scene so that her husband has to come and take her away? Why is Samarra so implacable? Why is the atmosphere between the brothers so tense? As the answers are gradually revealed, her story builds to a head.
Bhutto is, unsurprisingly, a political writer and the novel is full of sharp asides about the relationship between the Pakistan and American militaries and the way they have divided operations on the Afghan border. She accuses politicians and army alike of betraying their own country. As Samarra says to a general: “You are the ones who have sold everything in this country you defend so urgently. You sold its gold, its oil, its coal, its harbours,” and even, she adds, its airspace.
This, though, is not a geopolitical tract but a human story, with love as well as ideology. Bhutto blends the two adroitly and, in one memorable scene where Mina confronts a group of swaggering Taliban with a torrent of rage and grief and pain so raw and unstoppable that it cows them, she writes with great poignancy too. This is a short book and she keeps the emotional pitch high.
At the beginning of this affecting novel, Samarra notes that: “You can’t choose your home. You can’t just make a new one.” And this, says Bhutto, is the tragedy of the inhabitants of Mir Ali and of Pakistan as a whole.
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