Fesperman’s experience reporting firsthand for the Baltimore Sun made The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (2003) the best thriller to come out of the Bosnian war; now, he goes to the Tribal Lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the last days of the Taliban.
There’s no way to soften the scenery in the godforsaken territory ruled by the Pashtun tribes and no story to tell from that part of the world that isn’t, if truthful, grim as death. Here the eponymous warlord’s son is Najeeb, the University of North Carolina–educated and now exiled son of an Afghan tough guy supporting himself as a reporter and translator in Peshawar, Pakistan’s gateway to Afghanistan. Cut off from his family for spilling secrets to Pakistan’s powerful secret police, Najeeb is hired as a local fixer by thrice-married and overexperienced American reporter Stan “Skelly” Kelly, freshly back in action after several boring years in the Midwest. Skelly needs Najeeb to accompany him as he follows one of the many Afghan strongmen of the moment returning to join the chaotic war on the Taliban theocracy. The translator’s attention to the job is compromised by his concern for Daliya, a university-educated 20-year-old woman sent to Peshawar by her family to rethink her attitude toward arranged marriages. Daliya and Najeeb have become lovers, placing themselves in mortal danger not only from the wrath of their families but also from the harsh judgment of their fundamentalist neighbors. Indeed, Najeeb has been receiving menacing letters quoting passages from the Koran. When Skelly and Najeeb’s reporting takes them across the border with a cutthroat whose interests are unclear, Daliya must flee Peshawar first to save her life, then to save her lover’s.
Bleak and gritty, but thoroughly believable, especially the reporting scenes.