Hot Off the Shelf: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto

This review doesn't contain any spoilers, so read on assuredly.

I'd gone through a dry spell where I didn't read much literary fiction--you could say I'm still recovering from the mild traumas of being an English major--and I've been making a concerted effort to read more international fiction, so I was pretty thrilled to get my hands on a copy of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto! 

Although a relatively short novel, Bhutto packs a lot of story into a single page. First, the synopsis from Goodreads:

Fatima Bhutto’s stunning debut novel chronicles the lives of five young people trying to live and love in a world on fire. Set during the American invasion of Afghanistan, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon begins and ends one rain-swept Friday morning in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas close to the Afghan border.

Three brothers meet for breakfast. Soon after, the eldest, Aman Erum, recently returned from America, hails a taxi to the local mosque. Sikandar, a doctor, drives to the hospital where he works, but must first stop to collect his troubled wife, who has not joined the family that morning. No one knows where Mina goes these days. Sikandar is exhausted by Mina’s instability and by the pall of grief that has enveloped his family. But when, later in the morning, the two are taken hostage by members of the Taliban, Mina will prove to be stronger than anyone could have imagined.

The youngest of the three leaves for town on a motorbike. An idealist, Hayat holds strong to his deathbed promise to their father—to free Mir Ali from oppressors. Seated behind him is a beautiful, fragile girl whose life and thoughts are overwhelmed by the war that has enveloped the place of her birth.

Three hours later their day will end in devastating circumstances.

In this beautifully observed novel, individuals are pushed to make terrible choices. And as the events of this single morning unfold, one woman is at the center of it all.

Like me, you've probably never heard of Mir Ali, the rural town in Pakistan where the novel is set, so I decided to look it up. It's undeniably a small town, but it holds some big secrets, and as you're reading The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, you feel like Mir Ali is on the edge of the world.

The novel opens with all three brothers at the family home where they all live. At first glance, the three brothers couldn't be more different--they're all absorbed in their own worldly troubles over their breakfast meal, whether that's the latest plot to escape to America, the work needing to be done at the hospital, or the revolutionary mission to be organized at the university. Yet one of the things I particularly liked about the story was how the brothers seemingly went separate ways on the fateful morning on which the story is told, but in the end their stories converge in a dramatic, devastating, and unexpected way.

Because the entire story takes place over one morning, the majority of the novel is told in flashback. Telling the majority of a story in flashback is one of those literary devices that can quickly become exhausting if it's not done well, but Bhutto executes it superbly. The only time she really goes into flashback is for the purpose of furthering the story and giving necessary context, not for sentimentality.

With each flashback, I was drawn more and more into the stories of each of the three brothers. I was fascinated by the stories themselves, particularly the way they unraveled with unanticipated consequences, but I found myself unable to get attached to any of the characters themselves. This isn't a reading phenomenon that happens often with me--usually I find myself adoring the character and merely being satisfied by their story, liking it mostly because it's affixed to an intriguing character.

It took me awhile to figure out why I felt so disconnected from the characters, but I was finally able to pinpoint the cause: the characters are indirectly guarded. Allow me to elaborate. One of the wonderful things you can do as an author writing in third person, as The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is written, is give the reader information that the characters don't have. Or give the reader information that only one character has, but doesn't express in any discernible outward way, so the other characters are not privy to that information. By and large, this just simply doesn't happen in the novel, and frankly, I'm not sure that I've ever read a work of fiction written in third person where this literary device wasn't taken advantage of.

Admittedly, it did bother me at first, but then I came to an important realization. When reading international fiction, it's unreasonable for me to expect the characters to behave with the same freedom that characters in the U.S. might. While it didn't feel like Bhutto was actively making the characters secretive, it's ultimately unreasonable to expect characters to openly speak their minds when doing so could get them beaten or killed because they're in a war-torn country where the Taliban rule.

As much as I might want Samarra, the main character described in the synopsis as "the center of it all," to yell at Aman Erum and tell him all the ways he's a fool, she can't because it would cost her too much. So, in a sort of backwards way, I came to the realization that by not making the reader privy to a myriad of things the characters are oblivious to, Bhutto is actually staying true to the essence of the characters and the consequences that brutal honesty would inevitably bring them.

Relationships are made and broken, promises are kept and forgotten, and loyalties are forged and torn. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a gorgeously written portrayal of what it's like to live in a war-torn country and the daily trials that come with that fact.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon was just released this week, so pick it up at your favorite book buying establishment now!

I received this book as an Advanced Readers' Copy from the publisher for the purposes of honest review.

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