By Ekta R. Garg
June 7, 2017
Genre: Women’s fiction
Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars
A young boy must navigate the intricacies of love and friendships, as well as avoid the Taliban and getting killed in general, in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Despite the prevalence of poverty and the challenges to make it from one day to the next alive, the boy approaches his life with a fairly positive attitude and good humor. Andrea Busfield drew on her personal experiences in Kabul to craft the delightful, stirring debut novel Born Under A Million Shadows.
Fawad is 11 years old and doesn’t mince words. His mother told him he was born under the shadow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and while he may have to spend his days watching where he steps so his foot doesn’t accidentally hit an old landmine he has to navigate much bigger problems at home. After the Taliban killed his father and brother and kidnapped his sister, Fawad and his mother have moved from the small town of Paghman to the Kabul suburb of Khair Khana to live with his aunt.
It’s the daily bickering between his mother, Mariya, and his aunt that present the real problem to peace in Fawad’s life.
Nevertheless, he manages, more or less, to keep a smile on his face. His cousin, Jahid, can act like an idiot sometimes, but Fawad has his two best friends, Jamilla and Spandi, to keep him sane. Fawad and his friends “work the foreigners on Chicken Street together”—that is, they trail after the ever-present expatriates and beg, cajole, and charm their way into running errands in exchange for money. Fawad’s mother cleans the homes of the rich residents of town, and generally Fawad can’t complain about his life.
His mother can, however. After hearing her sister whine about the extra strain on the family due to more mouths to feed, Mariya gets fed up and finds a new job. She and Fawad move to the home of foreigners in the more posh suburb of Wazir Akbhar Khan. Mariya’s main job is to cook and wash the clothes of the three foreigners living in the house, and even though Fawad can’t comprehend living with women who can’t even wash their own clothes he’s relieved. Anything has to be better than dealing with his aunt’s family every day.
With this development, Fawad comes to learn that life outside of his experience as an Afghan is radically different. He’s taken aback by the warm welcome he receives from Georgie, the British woman responsible for hiring Mariya, and his shock increases when he learns that Georgie lives with James, a journalist, and May, an engineer, and that none of them are married to one another or anyone else. Georgie herself has come to Afghanistan to work with an NGO that promises to create new jobs for the Afghan people and decrease their dependence on the opium trade; her work allows her to stay close to her boyfriend prominent community figure, Haji Khan, who some say may or may not be the country’s biggest drug dealer.
Even if he is, Fawad can’t deny that he’s a kindhearted maybe-drug dealer.
After developing alternating crushes on Georgie and May and having a hilarious run-in with James, Fawad settles into his new life. He and Mariya have their own rooms for the first time as well as a television, and Fawad continues to go to school and even finds a part-time job. But the Taliban creeps along the edges of the country, and Fawad starts to learn how to balance personal safety with concern for his housemates and other friends and family. As he comes of age, he understands one thing clearly: life in Afghanistan may be almost impossible, but it is certainly worth it with his loved ones close by.
Author Andrea Busfield accomplishes an incredible feat in Born Under A Million Shadows: she balances the horrors of a country blasted—literally—by the Taliban and terrorism with authentic humor and optimism. Having spent significant time in Kabul herself, Busfield has the depth of experience to write with confidence about the town and its conditions.
She doesn’t hold back in describing the challenges of the country’s residents. Power cuts, child beggars, and destroyed families stay firmly in the reader’s vision in the story. But even as Busfield gives readers a wide lens, she makes sure to draw the eye to Fawad and his funny, astute observations on life.
The gentle story will make readers laugh aloud and nod with gravity by turns. After a major event, Fawad muses to himself, “I couldn’t help thinking that despite their height, adults were just plain unbelievably stupid: men were blowing up other men; soldiers were shooting at children; men were ignoring women they loved; the women who lived them were pretending they didn’t; and when I read the newspapers to Pir Hederi, everyone they talked about seemed to be far more interested in rules and arguments and taking sides than the actual business of living.”
A few pages later, he shares that James has begun some new research about secret treasure in the mountains and observes, “My guess was that if there was treasure hiding in Afghanistan’s mountains, it would probably be on sale in a Pakistani market by now, along with all the rest of our old stuff.”
Given the tremulous state of affairs in Afghanistan today, readers might find it difficult to believe in this version of the country. A version where, despite the daily news cycle, the residents continue to love and laugh and live. Busfield gives readers just that, however. A story that is wholly Afghani in its attitudes and approach and yet universal in the challenges a regular 11-year-old might face: a growing interest in girls, concern for his friends, and a boundless curiosity about new ideas.
Readers will definitely want to Binge Born Under A Million Shadows!