One day when I was serving in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to accompany our Task Force Deputy Commander to a meeting in the heart of the city of Kandahar. I was a low-ranking staff officer at the time, only attending the meeting to take notes. I have no recollection of what the meeting was about, but there are two things I remember clearly.
The first memory is the sensory assault that always came with Kandahar – the ruined buildings, the open sewers, the low-hanging smog and dust that seemed to permeate everything. The second memory is of an aid worker who was also attending the meeting, mainly because she was a striking woman wearing designer jeans and knee-high black leather boots with four-inch spike heels For some reason, that contrast – the trendy jeans and chic boots against the war-torn surroundings – seemed to summarize much of the Western world’s adventures in Afghanistan.
I was in Afghanistan as a soldier. I was armed, clad in body armour and equipped with at least a passing understanding of what I was there to do (the merits of the mission are an entirely different conversation). To me, aid workers were a strange bunch. They were not armed and generally not wearing body armour (say what you will about spike heels), and so were far more vulnerable to threats and hazards of all descriptions, at least as far as I could tell. For these aid workers, their situation seemed to necessitate a much higher reliance on goodwill and interaction with the Afghans themselves. All things considered, aid workers had to be answering some kind of higher calling. How else to explain them? In any case, Deni Ellis Béchard’s second novel, Into The Sun, is a four-hundred page meditation on this very question.
Into The Sun primarily takes place in Kabul, the Afghan capital, in 2011 and 2012 as the windfall of foreign investment has started to wane. At first glance, we’re told the story of three aid workers – Alexandra, Justin and Clay – whose love triangle yields catastrophic results. To some extent, this is a glimpse into a certain bacchanalia for which the aid-worker community is infamous, the boozy parties and devil-may-care sex lives of people living in perilous circumstances.
We’re also given a thorough understanding of each character’s origin and personal higher calling. Justin is devoutly evangelical; a sexual assault in Alexandra’s past inspires her efforts to defend imprisoned Afghan women; and Clay is, well, a calculating psychopath … although not without his reasons. The three of them are compelling and masterfully crafted, but they’re also very difficult to like. I found this frustrating. In a way, I wanted these three characters to get their comeuppance. But then I came to realize the true heart of the story is a fourth character, Idris, a young Afghan man who works as a taxi driver and general gofer at a Kabul girls’ school.
From early on in the story, Idris has interactions with Justin, Alexandra and Clay alike, and so we see him through their eyes. He comes across as bright and earnest. He also comes across as slightly disingenuous, definitely opportunistic and possibly dangerous. In other words, he is presented as an Afghan – as an off-putting Other – seen through Western eyes. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel exactly like this with the Afghans I happened to meet. So it’s crucial to remember that Westerners, soldiers and aid workers alike, are the interlopers in the Afghan’s world, not the other way around. That our default setting is viewing someone such as Idris as the Other is the uncomfortable truth Béchard so deftly reveals as Into The Sun approaches its inevitable conclusion.
At this point, I’ve likely made it sound as if Into The Sun is heavy-handed and ponderous. It isn’t. Béchard writes with a perfect balance of surgical prose and philosophical inquiry. The story is not short on kinetic action, either, from a car bomb to an attack on a safe room to an unforgettable sequence involving air rifles and adolescent stupidity. The action is gripping, but what really propels the narrative along is a simmering, growing tension.
From the beginning, we know how things end up (or we seem to know), but the journey of getting there is the kind of thing that keeps the pages turning well after bedtime. It’s clear that Béchard knows what he’s writing about, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his own story is in the pages. That’s not a bad thing.
I never went to Kabul during my time in Afghanistan. The capital was generally thought of as “safer” than Kandahar, but one of the small number of people I knew who lost their lives over there was killed in Kabul by a car bomb. He’d been there for about 48 hours. I thought about him as I got to the end of Into The Sun, even more than I thought about that aid worker and her leather boots while I was reading the rest of the story. I never understood Afghanistan, not in a complete way. I never understood the aid workers who went there without weapons or armour, and I certainly never understood the Afghans themselves. So I’m grateful to Deni Ellis Béchard for pulling back some of those curtains – and for telling a hell of a good story in the process.
Matt Lennox is the author of two novels, The Carpenter and Knucklehead. He is also an officer with the Queen’s York Rangers, a Toronto-based army reserve unit. Lennox served in Afghanistan in 2008.Report Typo/Error
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