A Door in the Earth
Even readers familiar with Afghanistan’s years of travail under Soviet occupation and Taliban rule, including the trauma of American military intervention, will discover aspects of those times to ponder in Amy Waldman’s novel, well-received by critics who have praised her for raising urgent questions, revealing the complexities of Afghanistan, and presenting questions about the ethical dimensions of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. All of those tributes are worthy to a notable and praiseworthy degree.
Yet to refer to this book as a “miracle,” to claim that it’s “breathtakingly nuanced,” or to describe the Muslim women in the story as “characters whose voices are varied and witty,” could legitimately be tagged as generously excessive. The book should be recognized as having some serious flaws.
The story’s main character is Parveen, a recent college graduate who was born in Afghanistan and raised in America. Other key characters include Waheed and his wives, both living and dead; Lt. Col. Trotter, a U.S. military officer who insists, based on a book by an American ophthalmologist, that a paved road to the village is just what it needs despite local resistance; his translator and guide Aziz, who provides a nascent romance of sorts; and Dr. Gideon Crane, author of the book, Mother Afghanistan, about his efforts to build a hospital to primarily benefit women in and near the village to which Parveen is drawn. Readers are likely to think of Three Cups of Tea by the shamed Greg Mortenson as the model for Crane, whose book is also a litany of lies.
Parveen is shocked by the conditions she finds upon arriving at the village Crane has made famous to do anthropological research immediately after earning her B.A. She finds the home of her host family, headed by Waheed, to be squalid and terrifying in its isolation. However, within two weeks she adapts to living in what was the animals’ room, sleeping on a straw mat on a dirt floor, going without regular bathing and more. In the space of a few months, she becomes so enamored of the place and its people, even after several devastatingly traumatic events, that she refuses to leave, despite warnings for her safety, until there is no other option.
In the months before her arrival and departure, Parveen does no real research. She seldom helps around the house she is inhabiting, nor does she spend much time with the women in the compound, from whom she could learn so much, except when she is reading her edited version of Crane’s book to them.
She takes long walks, hangs out with and influences both the ordinary and relatively elite men of the village, including the elders of the shura or governing council, garners Waheed’s and Trotter’s respect, and learns how, in one lesson, to save a woman’s life when she is experiencing obstructed labor or eclampsia while spending her once-a-week day with the female doctor who visits the hospital. To her credit, she also grapples with her growing emotional and intellectual conflicts, expressed with great confidence to the males in power with whom she engages so comfortably.
Really? Why doesn’t Parveen have a few more years and a graduate degree under her belt before heading off to one of the world’s most complex countries because of the inspiration of a book which proves to be totally fraudulent? How is it that in a country as male-dominated, conservative, and gender-segregated as Afghanistan does a young woman, and a foreigner at that, garner such respect and inclusion among the men, Afghan and American? How is her Dari sufficiently excellent that she can think, speak and translate fluidly? Why do the women of the household accept and come to love her when she has usurped them with her access to the powerbrokers and freedom of movement so absolutely denied to them?
There are many questions to ask in order to review this book objectively. While some relate to verisimilitude, others have to do with the craft of writing. Why, for example, does Waldman choose to have an omniscient narrator tell the story, more like a reporter or observer than a storyteller, rather than having the tale told in the voice of Parveen, the glue who holds the story’s elements together and who is most likely to draw readers into her experience? Why so much tell, and so little show?
To her credit, Waldman works her way to more dialogue and less third-party narration as the story progresses. She also offers an array of stunning events as the denouement begins, born of poor judgement, western perspectives, and military and political interventions by egotists who don’t care to try understanding Afghanistan’s culture. She also credits Parveen, finally, with a bit of insight and humility, although it may be too little too late.
“In moments of clarity she understood that the village was a backdrop against which Americans played out their fantasies of benevolence or self-transformation or, more recently, control. She was as guilty as Trotter or Crane. She’d come to play at being an anthropologist, and play was all it had been. . . .”
To the great relief of readers, finally Parveen gets it (after being rejected by her hosts), redeeming the important, and ultimately sensitive story that Waldman has written. It would have been even more gripping without its literary flaws.