Talwar’s novel set in modern-day Afghanistan takes a volatile topic—a jihadist preparing to attack a guesthouse in Kabul—and explores the characters involved with empathy and insight.
The storyline, which takes place in the hours leading up to the attack, is narrated in large part from three points of view: Mohsin, the Afghan jihadist; Amala, an aid worker originally from Bangladesh staying at the guesthouse; and James, the British security consultant who loves her. As Mohsin contemplates what he is about to do, he retraces the steps in his life that got him to this bleak point. He’d been a promising architecture and urban planning student at Islamabad University, then a charity worker helping rural communities in Afghanistan. His life turned when he witnessed his entire family killed (while attending an outdoor wedding) by an American air attack, the orders for which were based on misinformation. Talwar’s compelling narrative examines people on both sides of this story—the terrorists and the victims—with an unbiased eye. Mohsin, in particular, is a dynamic character—an intelligent, compassionate, heroic man who somehow finds himself minutes away from participating in an act of terrorism that will undoubtedly kill innocent people. The novel—which is thematically reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner—isn’t so much about war, but about the consequences of war as well as life in modern-day Afghanistan, the cultural oppression of women, political instability, religious bigotry and the blatant disregard of basic human rights. A line from the book is fitting: “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”
Deeply disturbing but also moving; will haunt readers long after the last page.