An absorbing portrait of life in contemporary Afghanistan that is simultaneously raucous and heart-rending, told from a perspective we rarely hear: that of a young émigré returning home to his war-torn country.
In his debut novel, Kochai tells the story of Marwand, a 12-year-old whose family has returned to their home province of Logar, just south of American-occupied Kabul, at the height of the war on terror. Marwand hasn't been to his ancestral home since he was 6; he's an American boy who barely knows life in Logar. Worse, the landscape feels like anything but home: American bases and checkpoints pockmark the land as the central government in Kabul tries to tamp down a raging insurgency, and Taliban fighters roam Logar with impunity. Holed up in his mother's family compound and looking for some comfort, Marwand tries to pet the family dog, Budabash—only to find the wolflike animal less agreeable than the dogs he's used to in America. Budabash bites off a bit of his finger and runs away. Convinced that Budabash is a demon in disguise, Marwand sets out with a band of cousins to track the dog down and bring him back home. But that plot is really just an excuse for an extravagant outpouring of storytelling: Marwand encounters an enormous cast of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, all of whom have stories to tell about their family and the bloody history of the land they call home. The result is a novel that reads like a thrilling collision of Huckleberry Finn, Boccacio's The Decameron, and One Thousand and One Nights. As it careens between tragic stories of Afghanistan's history of perpetual warfare and magical realist tales of djinn, the novel threatens to become unwieldy at times, but Marwand is the thread that holds it together. Endowed with a voice that is at once street-smart and innocent, the boy speaks a language that is distinctly Afghan but retains the marks of his life as an American preteen. When his little brother, Gwora, demands to follow Marwand and his cousins on their quest to find Budabash, Marwand beats him into submission: "After the whupping, I left him in the orchard all crumpled up," he boasts, "...while me and the rest of the fellahs headed out onto the roads of Logar to search all day long for the wolf-dog who, just a few weeks ago, had bitten the tip off my index finger." Marwand's is the voice of an American kid who speaks a bit of Pakhto and whose favorite word happens to be "Wallah!" When Marwand and his cousins hide on top of a roof of the compound to eavesdrop on a conversation or don burqas so they can sneak into a bride's wedding party in search of a cousin's betrothed, the book seems like the very echo of Huckleberry Finn. With beautiful prose that encompasses the brutality of life in Afghanistan without overshadowing the warmth of family, culture, and storytelling, Kochai delivers a gorgeous and kaleidoscopic portrait of a land we're used to seeing through a single, insufficient lens: the war on terror.
A vivid and moving novel about heritage, history, and the family bonds that transcend culture.