A Three-Hours’ Tale on the Pakistani-Afghani Border

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: A Novel, by Fatima Bhutto, (Penguin Press), 240 pages, release date 24 March, 2015

Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a novel that deserves wide reading for its topic—but more than that, it deserves wide reading for its writing. The novel recounts the experiences of three brothers on Eid (the Muslim new year) in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, whose populace have been engaged in a long-term civil war against the Pakistani government.

Life in Mir Ali is perpetually violent. In addition to government and local combatants, there are US drones, and an influx of guerrillas from Afghanistan, who see themselves as freedom fighters, but who don’t differentiate between government targets and local targets that don’t share their particular branch of Islam. In fact, the violence has become so commonplace that for the first time ever the three brothers will not be attending the same mosque for Eid. Instead, each of them is going to a different mosque, a way of ensuring that at least someone will survive the violence that is apt to occur.

Although the primary action of the novel takes place during a period of a few hours, Bhutto offers enough back story that readers can unravel the complicated politics of the region. Perhaps not completely—but certainly more effectively and thoroughly  than I’ve seen them explained in any other popular source.

The use of the three brothers allows Bhutto to offer multiple perspectives. Aman Erum, the eldest, has been studying in the U.S. and is desperate to leave Mir Ali for better opportunities elsewhere. Sikandar, the middle brother, is a physician whose son, an only child, has recently been killed in a bombing. Hayat, the youngest, has devoted his life to independence for Mir Ali, having spent his childhood listening to his father’s tales of earlier uprisings. Two women figure significantly as well: Mina, Sikandar’s wife, who has begun obsessively attending funerals of victims of terrorist violence, even when they are complete strangers to her, and Samarra, loved by both the oldest and the youngest, who has risen from a position as a courier for to leader of one of Mir Ali’s most active rebel cells.

As the few hours’ action plays out, readers are thrown from one crisis to the next. Even as each character strives to do what’s right, he (or she) finds himself trapped by circumstances, forced to betray his deepest convictions.

Don’t wait for this novel to come out in paperback. Read it now—both for its political context and for its crisp prose and rapidly paced plot.