Terra Nullius | Book Review: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Fatima Bhutto’s novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an attempt to portray life in Pakistan—oscillating between the fundamentalist savagery of the Taliban and the apathy of the state—and how it affects the people who live under its shadow. The novel is set in the imaginary village of Mir Ali in Waziristan, in northern Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. It attempts to touch on multiple issues that perplex and haunt the tribal locals of a fragmented nation. The novel is set over 3 hours, with ample sprinklings of flashbacks and a disjointed narrative strategy. There are five characters defining the novel—three brothers– Erum Anum, Sikandar and Hayat, Sikandar’s wife Mina, and Samarra.

Stories of violence, bloodshed and fundamentalism in rural Pakistan flood contemporary media. Statistics and numbers of those affected by them have percolated into every discussion on the country. In this novel, Bhutto attempts to humanise those statistics and numbers—give them names and portray a day in their life. While reading this novel, one feels sympathy for the characters and the situations they face. But somehow, the empathy and heartbreak that such a novel should encompass, is missing. While one understands Mina’s hysterical grief on losing her only son to a Taliban shootout, one cannot taste it. A central character, Mina drifts through the pages of the book, haunting multiple funerals of strangers, searching for an answer to her child’s death, lost in grief, anger and hysteria. Her climatic altercation with some members of the Taliban in a forest allows Bhutto to raise important questions—the logic and rationality behind their attacks and ideology– but somehow she fails to delve into them or attempt to answer them.

Samarra, a tomboy as a child, obsessed with her father, eventually turns into a freedom fighter in her own right. Initially Anum Erum’s childhood romantic interest, Samarra is eventually paired with Hayat. While her character evolution is existent in the novel, it is not evident. The loss of her father, Anum Erums’ departure to the USA, Hayats influence and being brutally tortured by the army—shapes her—but how and when, is left to the readers imagination.

While Bhutto’s characters are strong, she fails to delve into them or their psychology, leaving much to be imagined or assumed. Among the brothers, Anum Erum is the eldest of the three. Driven by an ambition to leave Mir Ali, his detachment with the village is so pronounced that he is effortlessly willing to betray his own family and people in exchange for a life abroad. One wishes Bhutto explored Anum Erum—his character, his decisions, and its ramifications more—but instead, Anum Erum remains a cardboard figure. The middle brother, Sikandar is a placid doctor. The danger, pressure and tragedy that he faces because of his profession in Mir Ali, is juxtaposed against his mild temperament. The youngest brother Hayat, is an important foil in the larger scope of the novel. A member of a separatist group, he wants the liberation of his town from Pakistan. The closest and most beloved of his father, somehow, his oneness and patriotism for Mir Ali does not emerge, as it should.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon touches on multiple issues faced by this village in Pakistan—drone attacks, kidnapping and disappearances, Islamist fundamentalism, the dichotomy between the state and the locals, military violence and the divergent perceptions of freedom. But somehow, it only briefly skims the surface of these complex issues. It does not delve deeply into any of them at a generic level or explain their intricacies within the scope of the novel.

The novel struggles between being fierce and at times mundane. There are passages in the book that are poignant and make one understand the reality of the lives that encompass the lands of Mir Ali. The depiction of authority in this novel is distinct– whether the Army, the Taliban or even those at the American consulate. Simultaneously, there are often unnecessary descriptions that spoon feed the reader with too many details and images of the setting. While Bhutto portrays the geography of Mir Ali in intricate detail, describes day-to-day banalities, along with the decrepit and dilapidated surroundings, she fails to etch out her characters and their history leading to their actions and the plot in the three hours that form the crux of this novel.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is fast paced, and its strength lies in the fact that despite its deficiencies, the reader wants to get to the end and understand what happens and why. Bhutto’s writing is clean though the narrative is often (on purpose) confusing. The village of Mir Ali is inked into the readers mind, along with its cinematic descriptions and imagery. Bhutto’s success as a writer lies in the fact that she creates characters, who one wishes were explored further and given more space. Overall The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a good book. If you just want a book to read, it is a viable option. But if you want a book to think over, understand and get lost in, it leaves you unsatisfied. For a novel so political in its nature and its theme, by an author so seeped in the political landscape of Pakistan, it leaves one disappointed because it offers little explication and only deep narration.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.