In 2007, a Canadian soldier stationed in Kandahar sent a letter to Maclean’s magazine to thank the editors for keeping him well informed, and also to compliment them for finding a new “pin-up” girl for him and his comrades to enjoy. He was talking about a wholesome-looking young woman posing as a student for the magazine’s annual university ranking issue. The young woman, Kinga Ilyes, became known as “the Darling of Kandahar,” enjoying a wave of media attention. The soldier, Sergeant Christos Karigiannis, unfortunately died a short time after he wrote the letter. The story is the subject of Montreal writer Felicia Mihali’s short novel (her first in English) and the first fiction to come out of Linda Leith Publishing, the new venture of the founder of Montreal’s Blue Metropolis literary festival.
Mihali imagines a brief e-mail correspondence between the soldier she renames Yannis and the darling, Irina. Both immigrants to Montreal, they do not flirt or reveal anything exceptionally personal, but rather discuss religion, politics at home and abroad, and the everyday life of combat and peacekeeping in Afghanistan. Irina does not let on that – through his long discourses on his activities in the Middle East, his attitudes toward its customs and the war in general – she hasfallen completely in love with him.
Twenty-four-year old Irina lives with her divorced mother, whose new sailor husband is away most of the year, an arrangement born out of convenience more than affection. Irina has had two previous boyfriends, but neither captured her attention like Yannis. The only other close person in her life has been a childhood friend, Marika, with whom she has lost touch. She fondly remembers the times they would re-enact the settlement of Montreal, playing the various missionaries, military leaders and politicians involved. Her longing for her old friend seems grounded in the same point of connection as with Yannis: religion, politics, strangers in a strange land.
Mihali has a great deal to say on these topics, as well as the status of Montreal’s immigrant community. The more compelling story of the budding – but tragically short – relationship between a lonely soldier and a solitary young woman suffers from too little space. It’s treated as a sidebar, rather than the main event. Yet, there are moments when the clunky expository prose happily gives way to more creative and imagistic storytelling. The star-crossed relationship concludes in Irina’s mind with one of the most romantic ideas around: that declaring her love for Yannis, not holding back because of fear or timidity, would have given him a reason to survive the war.
This returning thought seems too much for Irina. After Yannis’s death, her “pin-up” fame fades, as does her desire to find a new love, and she fully surrenders to the routines of life with her mother. Despite her claims that she has been unmarked by her parents’ divorce and other shifts in her young life, she seems unable to get past her experience of being a lifeline to her darling soldier and a darling to a bored media trying to take credit for a fairy-tale war story.
Carla Lucchetta is a writer and essayist for TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Her book Lonely Boy , sons writing about their absent fathers, will be published next year.