This book was the best-selling non-English book of 2004 in Britain and Seierstad the best-selling Norwegian author ever, so I had high expectations.
Despite the fact that my family hails from Pakistan originally, next-door Afghanistan has always come across as quite mysterious. The only influences on my impression of the country have been news reports in the English media, my husband’s stories of the way Afghan’s settled in Peshawar treated their women (from his travels around Pakistan) and the general image I have grown up with of the noble, brave and beautiful Pathan (or Pukhtoon) people living on both sides of the border.
This book resulted from the author’s stay with a bookshop owner and his family over a period of time in the year after the Taliban left Kabul. It recreates the home and lives of the bookseller of the title – Sultan Khan, his two wives, his mother and siblings and his children.
Seierstad gives us insight into both the everyday squabbling and also the life-changing events which happen within this very dysfunctional family. What we also get is a woman’s perspective of life in Afghanistan and a unique insight into the inside of a burqa – the large over-garment many Afghan women wear. At the same time she shadows the men of the family and details the way they deal with the aftermath of war, the trials of everyday life and the new freedoms they are gaining.
I found myself rooting for Sultan Khan’s younger sister and feeling very annoyed at her lapses into despondency, the rest of the female characters are infuriating in the way they sometimes perpetuate the misogyny of the society portrayed, however the reader has to keep in mind that their reading is from a very Western perspective and that this behaviour results from years of war, patriarchy and abuse. On the other hand I found it difficult to have sympathy for Sultan Khan or his eldest son Mansur who seems to be made in the same mould as his father but with a streak of malice and spinelessness running through him (which made me want to wring his neck). Although we have to keep in mind Seiergard’s admission that “…maybe it's not possible for a western woman to write an honest account of an Afghan patriarch, one that he would like. Maybe our worlds are too far apart."
Although this book is meant to be documentary-like in style, it is unusual in that it is not written from the author’s viewpoint, but from various family members. This leads the reader to question how Seierstad could possibly know what the person was thinking and she says herself in the book’s forward:
“Readers have asked me: “How do you know what goes on inside the heads of the various family members?” I am not, of course, an omniscient author. Internal dialogue and feelings are based entirely on what family members described to me”
Despite this, there were often times when I stopped reading mid-sentence and thought “Is this how it really happened”. The individual that Sultan Khan is based on asserts not in this interview, although not always convincingly.
Overall I enjoyed the book and it was finished in no time, leaving me wanting to know more. There is a chapter near the end that has little bearing on the rest of the book and seems to have been slipped in for the sake of it. Also if you are looking for a happy ending this is not the book to find it in as the last pages leave you hanging somewhat. In any case this is a fascinating read.