Visiting Afghanistan in 2004, I trekked with relative ease from the opium fields near Kandahar to the gardens of Jalalabad and beyond. But by the end of 2008, my Afghan host insisted that a rifle-carting guard and a pistol-wearing driver accompany me everywhere. When I broke away in a clandestine effort to interview women drug addicts in Kabul’s poorest neighborhood, even my companions, the brave Afghan women who ran a drug treatment center, warned that if anyone asked, I should say I was from Germany. By then, clearly, the goodwill days for Americans were long gone.
This sharp deterioration in security, first in the south, then in Kabul, and finally in the north, is woven into the story of “Farishta,” the first novel written by retired U.S. diplomat Patricia McArdle. Told in first person, it is the story of Angela Morgan, who lost her husband in the 1983 Beirut bombing of the U.S. embassy. Still suffering from traumatic stress two decades later, she arrives in early 2005 for a diplomatic assignment in Mazar-e Sharif to find a relatively friendly environment. “That’s why we don’t wear the Kevlar or the helmets,” says her driver. “The locals actually seem to like us.”
The story ends 12 months later in a fury of violence, with two deadly attacks on foreigners and another that almost kills the outspoken Afghan woman Angela has befriended.
Superficially, parts of McArdle’s own life parallel that of her protagonist. She, too, was an American diplomat based in a British PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) unit in Mazar and, like her protagonist, brought solar cookers to Afghanistan. Her knowledge of Afghanistan and PRT life is apparent, and some of the best sections portray the amusing efforts of diplomats and soldiers to understand one another. But the novel’s episodic quality and eclectic pacing make the story feel undeveloped. Several promising plot points are allowed to fizzle. For example, the reason Angela is sent to Mazar in the first place — to uncover a deceptive translator — fades into the background until near the end, when it’s resolved in three paragraphs. Angela’s decision to sneak off base to bring her solar ovens to a nearby refugee camp is left equally unexplored; the reader never sees or hears about her interactions with the camp’s residents.
However, the point “Farishta” ultimately makes is well taken: Afghanistan, as welcoming as it is hostile, has proved to be far more complex than we outsiders ever imagined.
Hamilton is the author of four novels, most recently “31 Hours,” and the founder of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
By Patricia McArdle
Riverhead. 358 pp. $25.95