An American in Central Asia encounters love, politics, war and enlightenment in this ambitious debut novel from TV writer Mastras.
Traveling in Pakistan, former Boston attorney Nick Sunder is wrongly accused of the murder of a French woman with whom he bonded. Things grow more complicated when Nick becomes an inadvertent killer while eluding police. Trekking through perilous mountain terrain, Nick is befriended by stoical, serene natives of Kashmir who are returning to their war-torn homeland (under Indian occupation) after having traveled westward looking for work. As Nick incurs an unpayable debt to the eponymous Fidali, a victim of horrific political violence who has chosen to surrender his ego and accept his fate, the American likewise moves toward Kashmir—where, in a parallel narrative, two figures are introduced: a beautiful young woman, Aysha, who operates a rudimentary free medical clinic, and her lover, Kazim, a fiery muhajideen increasingly involved in the Kashmiri revolt against India. There’s a lot going on in this well-researched, atmospheric melodrama, and the story’s pace never flags. But the characters are generically intrepid or malevolent; scenes in which Aysha and Kazim meet as adolescents and fall in love are soporifically predictable; and Nick’s emotional efforts to understand Fidali’s calm acceptance of whatever Allah wills, initially affecting, become unfortunately redundant. There’s the germ of a promising contrast between the self-destruction inherent in Kazim’s activism and the peace that surpasses understanding in Fidali’s passiveness—but so much emphasis is placed on the central figure of Nick that that contrast is never developed. The result is a well-meaning but uneasy amalgam of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
Mastras is an intelligent writer with a lively style that deserves a more focused and original story than this one.