THE DURAND LINE by Wendelin Johnson


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Murder, drugs, and gem-smuggling in war-torn South Asia.

It's 1992, the final year of communist rule in Afghanistan. Lily Durand, a slightly lost ex-pat photographer living in Peshawar, Pakistan, sets out for the Afghan border with her friend Suleiman, hoping to see the Durand Line, the 1,519-mile colonial-era border that bears her name. Along the way, Suleiman, an Afghan refugee, is mysteriously shot. As Suleiman collapses, he hands Lily a small sack containing three Colombian emeralds. She stashes the loot in her camera and decides to complete his dealings, though all Suleiman has told her is that the emeralds are destined for Habib in Delhi–a rather useless clue in India. Nevertheless, the grieving Lily embarks on a journey through old Delhi's colorful, overwhelming underbelly in search of answers. In the process, she meets handsome Afghan refugees, an American drug smuggler qua travel agent, eunuchs, and members of the American consulate. She also celebrates the vibrant holiday of Holi and visits the Taj Mahal, all the while trying to elude the undercover investigator who's tailing her. As the story snakes through the exotic streets, she and the motley crew around her quote Urdu and Persian poetry to each other and editorialize about the region. Criminals and secret agents alike discuss politics and national identity over liberal amounts of hashish. At times, the book is overloaded with nonetheless helpful cultural information, and its characters seem a bit more like mouthpieces dispensing nuggets of historical insight than vibrant entities with plausible motives. When, after a love affair and several reversals of fortune, Lily is shot by a stranger in a dark alley, it's difficult to care a great deal. The dusty, swirling civilization around her, at least, won't mourn her much.

An ambitious, if somewhat ponderously scholarly first novel.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 1-4010-5081-6
Program: Kirkus Indie
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