Paperback, 320 pages
Published: February 2, 2010 by SMP Trade Paper/St. Martin’s Griffin (1st published 2009)
Setting: Kabul, Afghanistan (2000s)
My name is Fawad, and my mother tells me I was born under the shadow of the Taliban. Because she said no more, I imagined her stepping out of the sunshine and into the dark, crouching in a corner to protect the stomach that was hiding me, while a man with a stick watched over us, ready to beat me into the world.
In 21st century Afghanistan, war has shaped much of life for several generations. After the Afghans were finally liberated from Russian occupation in 1989, the power vacuum was filled by rival warlords, and the country was consumed by civil war. Then the rise of the Taliban finally brought peace, but at a terrible price.
Fawad, the funny, perceptive eleven-year-old narrator of Born Under a Million Shadows, sees the Taliban fall in 2001. Fawad and his mother have lost most of their family and rely on the charity of relatives. His father and brother were killed, and his sister was abducted by Taliban forces and never seen again. Along with his friends and cousins, Fawad tries to earn or beg for money on the streets of Kabul to help them survive.
Then Fawad’s mother, Mariya, finds a housekeeping position with a group of foreigners. They go to live with her employers, including Georgie, a British aid worker, and May, an engineer from America, who are helping with the gradual process of rebuilding Afghanistan. Their household also includes James, a British journalist. The lifestyles and values of their housemates are very different from the strict Muslim way Fawad and his mother have always lived. James is in inveterate drinker and fancies himself a bit of a ladies’ man. May is a lesbian, and Georgie is involved with the powerful Afghan warlord Haji Khan, a dangerous man who may be in the opiate trade. Despite their differences, bonds of affection quickly grow, and Fawad, Mariya, and their English-speaking housemates form a colorful, unusual sort of family.
British journalist Andrea Busfield has lived and worked in Afghanistan, and her passion for this beautiful, war-torn country illuminates Born Under a Million Shadows. She vividly paints the streets of Kabul and the mountainous countryside, and reading this novel, I absorbed some of her love and understanding of the Afghan culture.
While this novel explores grim subjects, it is not a sad book. It doesn’t shy away from the suffering woven throughout the story, but it doesn’t sink into despair either. Death and violence are part of daily life in Kabul, so people just carry on, striving to survive, looking out for friends and relatives, offering hospitality to guests, celebrating holidays, and falling in love. What really stands out in this book — aside from the strong sense of time and place — is the vibrant cast of characters, the connections among them, and the warmth and humor that flow throughout the story.