The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto

One of six debuts on the Bailey’s Prize long list, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set over the course of three hours in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan. Three brothers all set off for separate mosques for their Friday prayers – not because of differences between them, but because of the fear that unites them. For the brothers, like all of their generation, are living with the consequences of their parents’ war and the stranglehold of fundamentalism, and for the entire family to be in the same mosque together at the same time is too dangerous to be contemplated.

The events of the three hours, coupled with frequent and detailed flashbacks, show the history of the family – the loss of the father, the different routes the brothers have taken through their lives, their conflicting loyalties to each other, their country and the dreams of their parents. Its strength, though, lies in the female characters – Bhutto says that she set out to write a novel about three brothers, and that the women’s voices began to take over. I’m glad they did, for these women are unexpected and engaging, and it is upon them that the story hangs. Samarra is driven by the determination to avenge her father; Mina is devastated by the death and destruction around her, and has started to simply show up at the funerals of strangers, from which her husband has to extract her. The courage of the former and the misery of the latter, though, are less separate than the reader is led to believe at first.

The glimpses into the ordinary, everyday life of Mir Ali are all the more powerful for the unease that is constantly present in the shape of the Taliban, of American informers, of the ever-present possibility of arrest. For me, though, the interest of the novel lies not in the events of the plot, or in its structure, but in its central question; how can a generation define itself, when it inherits a conflict it bore no part in initiating?

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