Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Christmas is not Christmas without a good book, and this year, I had the delight to immerse myself in a brilliant novel by Canadian-American novelist, Deni Ellis Béchard. Into the Sun, Béchard's latest novel, is a masterful blend of the best of long and short fiction techniques and proof of an exceptional imagination.
Béchard chooses for his setting Kabul, Afghanistan and for his cast of characters, adventure-seeking expatriates either out to make big money in providing security services or simply to risk the many dangers of the Afghan capital to validate their aspirations for altruism. At times, his characters verge on the comical, like Molly the curly blonde American who works in a dog shelter to save Afghan mutts and send them to new homes in America. It seems everyone in the novel is either trying to save the Afghans or save themselves. But this is not a novel about altruism or redemption. At its heart, it pits the excruciating pain of being left out against the unscrupulousness of self-survival.
The plot pivots around four main characters: Justin, determined to bring democracy through education to his Afghan students; Clay, a high school friend turned mercenary; Alexandra, an alluring human rights lawyer who is inextricably drawn to both men; and Idris, Justin's student who dreams of a scholarship to America. This story of intrigue is told to us by an almost faceless narrator: Michiko, an American-Japanese journalist who tenaciously investigates the deaths of Justin, Clay and Alexandra in a bomb explosion.
The novel rides high on each character's back story. So much so, that each of these stories could well merit being a separate work of short fiction. Unlike many writers who disrupt the arc of the story with jarring digressions ostensibly to deepen their characters, Béchard skilfully interlocks for the reader self-contained tales, each worthy of a Greek tragedy. However, Into the Sun is not so much a story of tragedy as it is of inevitability. Each of his expatriate protagonists is, like Icarus, drawn into the sun by their absence of self-restraint. And the Afghan, Idris, is the only true survivor. In this, Idris personifies Afghanistan, a country plagued by waves of invaders but left unchanged in its very nature. No one saves Afghanistan and no one saves Idris, but both continue, both survive.
The realism of Béchard's work lies in his impeccable portrayal of the frivolity of expatriate life in Kabul. Composed of journalists, bloggers, NGO workers and security contractors, almost exclusively from Western countries, this community parties, dances and engages in sexual dalliances behind high compound walls secured by their Afghan guards. And all their actions seem mindless attempts to embellish narratives for regaling their friends back home. Despite this parody of a one big frat party, the novel does offer the readers some fascinating glimpses of Kabul, a city that I have known from my own travels. And it offers up some fair commentary on Afghans themselves, touching on their propensity to bend the strict rules of morality for personal benefit, and more often for mere survival.
Béchard, a dual US-Canadian national, is in many ways the quintessential American writer. His Hemingway-like characters subtly capture in their self-absorption American fundamentalism, US military tradition, the sense of cultural superiority and the delusion that their political system still represents a model of democracy that can be imposed to turn foe into friend. This too makes Into the Sun a fascinating read for Canadians.
Into the Sun is published by House of Anansi.