A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A beautifully written novel that captures the heart and complexity of life in rural Afghanistan. 21-year old Parveen is an Afghani American whose parents escaped the country in 1998. Inspired by the best-selling memoir “Mother Afghanistan” by Dr. Gideon Crane, Parveen decides she wants to “help.” She arranges through Crane’s Foundation to visit the village featured in the book and in which a state of the art clinic for women’s health has been built. An anthropology student, Parveen plans to investigate the “structural reasons and power dynamics” that explain why so many Afghani women are dying. However, once established in the village, she is repeatedly surprised by how very different reality is from that described in the book.

The narrative is equal parts external description — the stunning landscape, the people, the events — and internal evolution as she learns more about her privileged status as an American and how very abstract her interests are compared to the reality of what is needed.

Well-developed characters represent a variety of factions and opinions — Berkeley Anthropology Professor Bannerjee, with whom Parveen corresponds, maintains a liberal, but abstract and condescending view of the Afghani people; Lt Col Trotter, representing the US military, believes in the military goals to help the Afghan people and yet faces ever increasing resistance from the locals; Afghani Aziz interprets for the US military, desperate to keep his job and simultaneously keep things from blowing up. All treat the truth as something to be manipulated — Trotter explains that “war was about controlling the story as much as the territory”; Aziz does not interpret exactly but manipulates statements to be more acceptable to the other; Banerjee thinks nothing of betraying Parveen for the “greater good”; and Crane invented half of his “memoir” in order to sell books and inspire donations.

The writing is beautiful and well put together. The memoir style allows multiple layers to be exposed simultaneously — observations of the village and its inhabitants are simultaneously overlaid with anthropological commentary and Parveen’s exposition on her own growing awareness. I particularly appreciated the insightful and multi-faceted commentary about Americans on the global stage — motivations, approaches, and the sad contrast between laudable aims and failing implementations.

Overall, while I did not find this book uplifting or inspiring I did find it deeply educating. Highly recommended.

Good quotes:
“It bothers you Americans that the world is the way it is, doesn’t it?”

“The first time he’d met Dr. Gideon, he said, he also had to give his story. Americans collected and offered them like they were business cards.”

“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 of this as Trotter or Crane. She’d come to play at being an anthropologist, and play was all it had been, because at some point, without much thought, she’d set all her anthropological work aside.”

“The urge to intervene, a high of its own, was a hard habit to break. Salvation could become an addiction, too.”

“Fiction disguised as nonfiction in the service of justice had a long and noble history. Abolitionists had invented or amplified escape slave narratives to dramatize their cause…”

And yet she read on, recognizing that the muscle of moral superiority can be a pleasurable one to exercise. Perhaps Crane, in making this warty presentation of himself, understood that too.”

“It was her first awareness that perhaps there is no self, no core, unshaped by others. From the moment we’re conscious that we’re being viewed, we’re being molded.”

“ ‘What I am here to learn is why so many women in Afghanistan are dying. Without understanding the structural reasons, without tackling the power dynamics that prevent women from having a voice, let alone proper health care, nothing will change.’ She was feeling proud of this declamation and the doctor nodded, as if she were agreeing, then said, ‘At the end of a labor, Parveen, a woman lives, or she dies. That is all that concerns me.’ ”

“To be female here was to grasp at scraps of information and sew them into the shape you imagined reality to be. Into fictions, patterned on distortions and inventions. The women needed an accurate understanding of the peril in which they lived — and the reasons for it.”

“She had, within sight, something fundamental, and also painful. which was that to be an adult was to have to make decisions and take actions that might be wrong. That might cause harm. To live was to bruise, the doctor seemed to be saying: there was no other way. Unlike Professor Banerjee or Gideon Crane, Dr. Yasmeen projected no certainty about the right path to take, the one that would avoid error and hurt; indeed, she seemed skeptical there was such a path. She didn’t think that all the answers could be had, much less claim to have them herself.”

“The digitized faces, fingerprints, and irises of men who’d never left these mountains would live perpetually in a DC suburb. Eternal life of another kind.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 27th, 2019.

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