A tale of love and personal redemption set in war-torn Afghanistan.
Martin served as an Army soldier during the Cold War, then as a political officer for the State Department in Afghanistan as well as in the Department of Homeland Security—experiences that radiate from every page of his debut novel. The story’s protagonist, Hank Garvey, is also a Vietnam vet and political officer in Afghanistan, assigned to Harmez to report, somewhat optimistically, on any signs of progress following the American invasion. What Hank finds, though, is poverty, rampant cynicism, and the brutal rule of the warlord Akbar Khan. Neither a soldier nor a diplomat, Hank is considered an “outlier,” and he struggles to be taken seriously as he discovers a progressive group organizing opposition to Khan’s tyrannical grip on the city. Meanwhile, he develops a deep romantic attachment to a Danish nurse named Illse Lillestrom, who embodies the mysteriousness and disaffectedness of Harmez itself. The plot, which develops slowly in episodic drips, is not the prime mover here. Instead, Hank’s character keeps the reader drawn in: a former soldier and cop, he’s not quite a hero; the inclination to heroism is but one ingredient in the complex brew that is his personality. Also, the setting, painted by the author in cinematographic detail, functions like a second main character, with ambience captured in brooding tones. The writing is always sharp and, when the subject turns to love, even poetic: “Fully invested in the moment now, blind to doubts and consequences, his arms closed around her in a victory of lust over judgment.” Hank’s tenure in Harmez turns out to be an exercise in renewal; still devastated from the loss of his wife to cancer, he gropes in the dark for purpose and happiness. In addition to touching on the treatment of women’s rights, the book as a whole is a kind of cautionary tale about the fragility of freedom as an export. It’s a rewarding read for those interested in an insider’s account of Afghanistan, revealed in all its unvarnished grimness.
A timely and thoughtful account of a lost American trying to find himself in a lost country.