Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel begins with a hearty, family breakfast one auspicious Eid morning. Over the next three hours, the book takes us through the Eid morning, amidst a light drizzle, last minute shopping and hordes of men in crisp laundered shalwar qameez, rushing to offer the communal prayers. In the background, a series of cataclysmic events are taking place, which were triggered centuries ago by fundamental quarrels of liberty, land, love and loyalty.
The setting for “The Shadow of the Crescent Moon” is Mir Ali, a real town in the turbulentWaziristan region of Pakistan. The title refers to the crescent moon, which is symbolic of Islam and the flag of Pakistan, but which has cast a cold shadow over Mir Ali. According to this novel, it is a place forsaken by the corrupt government and some believe, by God himself.
Aman Erum is the eldest of the three sons of Inayat; who fought for Mir Ali in the ‘50’s against Pakistan army and has raised his sons on tales of struggle and ideology. Unlike the youngest brother Hayat, who is brainwashed into his father’s ideals, Aman Erum can clearly see that he has no future in Mir Ali. He wants to break free of the shackles of Mir Ali and all that it encapsulates- restraining, limiting and decapitating. He dreams the American dream, where free commerce and individualism reigns. The middle brother Sikander, tied down by his medical profession and marriage, seeks a more moderate life in terms of ambition and morals.
The three brothers, along with Sikander’s wife Mina and Samarra, the love interest of Aman Erum, are the five intertwined characters. A tertiary character of Colonel Irshad Khan serves more as the evil face of corrupt authority rather than an actual person. The story weaves through the lives of these characters and how they are affected by politics, social unrest, intelligence agencies, terrorism and the war against terrorism. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon shows how regular people are inadvertently drawn into a political cause, and how quickly events can spiral out of control.
Having given the three brothers completely different personalities and aspirations, Fatima Bhutto however fails to flesh out the men in her story and does not create any strong, memorable characters. Perhaps it is done intentionally, as she wants to write about the people of Mir Ali through the lens of a family but leaves the characters sketchy so the readers can fill in the details themselves. Where she leaves the male characters wanting, Fatima Bhutto paints a beautiful portrayal of the two female characters: Samarra and Mina. Despite their suffering, they are powerful women seeking education and enlightenment. One suffers tragedy at the hands of the state and the other from the extremists but they never bow down: “Mina had never hidden her faith, never lied for protection or for the comforts of assimilation”. Fatima Bhutto does well to dispel the myth of the mute, domesticated, cowering Pakistani woman by treating us to fiery and feisty women like Mina and Samarra.
Though the language is easy enough, there are many times the reader will find it hard to keep a sense of what’s going on. There are two reasons for this: firstly Fatima Bhutto has used the technique of multiple narratives and without giving a distinct voice to each narrator, it ends up confusing the reader. Secondly, there is a constant back and forth on the timeline, which given five perspectives, creates even more perplexity. Some disjointed episodes further add to the reader’s discomfort.
No doubt in between the fractured narrative there are flashes of brilliance such as chilling interrogation scenes and one particular hair raising scene, towards the end, that brings Mina’s character to life as, despite her near schizophrenic state, she averts catastrophe.
In describing the cultural and geographic scenery and relationship with food, Fatima Bhutto draws on her poetic talents and provides pleasurable reading. One almost feels the nip in the air and tastes the scalding hot chai “boiled in an aged samovar and spiced with poppy seeds and cardamom” and the buttery ‘rotay’ dipped in “deep fried liver cooked in its own juices and garnished with thinly cut slices of tomato.” Given Fatima Bhutto’s ability to paint landscapes, it is surprising why she did not choose to write this story in the form of a fable, like Jamil Ahmad’s“The Wandering Falcon”, a hauntingly beautiful tale also based in the Waziristan region. A fable may have been a better medium for this story rather than five perspectives.
Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain whether Fatima Bhutto has set out to write a political thriller, a commentary on the socio-religious state of affairs in Waziristan, or a love story (ies). She appears to be tackling too many issues, without completely and comfortably addressing any single one and she fails to draw the reader completely into the story.
Yes, she is a keen observer of socio-political landscape and writes with journalistic precision on the state of government hospitals with expired drugs; the surprising presence of Hindu sweepers in the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad; the mushrooming of beauty saloons in a backwater town like Mir Ali and the fact that anyone in Pakistan with a mobile phone camera can become a journalist.
It is only towards the latter half of the book that the pieces come together and the pace picks up. But by then most readers would have all but given up, especially the ones who only picked up this book because of the aura surrounding the Bhutto name. This would be sad as the climax is well achieved and though not as thunderous as Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” it does deliver a strong and unexpected ending. Overall The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a commendable debut novel by an intelligent and perceptive author who can definitely work towards making a mark for herself in the world of South Asian literature.
“The Shadow of the Crescent Moon” is Fatima Bhutto’s fourth book. Her earlier works include a volume of poetry, which was published when she was only 15 and two non-fiction books, one being “Songs of Blood and Sword”, her best selling memoir on the life of her father, Mir Murtaza. She is a regular columnist at The Guardian, New Statesman and The Financial Times