Review: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is the first novel by Fatima Bhutto, who is the granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former President and Prime Minister of Pakistan, whose sister was Benazir Bhutto.  Fatima Bhutto graduated from Columbia University in 2004.  She lives in Karachi, and is a freelance writer.  Interestingly, her website does not mention this book.  Instead, it mentions three other books.  Judging by one article on her website, she seems to be a political radical.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an interesting novel, relatively brief and quite intense.  It is set in the tribal region of northwest Pakistan and involves three brothers who are preparing to celebrate Eid, the Muslim feast at the end of Ramadan.  The oldest son has decided to leave his childhood sweetheart and go into business away from his home town of Mir Ali.  The middle son has become a doctor in Mir Ali and the youngest has joined his brother’s sweetheart as an insurgent.  In the novel, Mir Ali is the focal point for the armed struggle between Pakistan’s army and local people who crave their own freedom.

Fatima Bhutto does a very good job describing the culture, the issues, the people and the setting.  One gets the sense of a long-running, life-and-death struggle in the northwest of Pakistan.  It is clear that the author’s sentiments are with the insurgents.

I found the novel frustrating in the sense that it lacks focus.  There is an insurgent plot to kill a minister, and the story seems to be headed to a climax there, but the novel ends in uncertainty.  Was he killed?  Who killed him?  Or if not, why not?  There is some uncertainty as to who the insurgents are.  Some are Taliban; some are ordinary people.  What is the relationship between them?  The Pakistani government is clearly an evil influence, but in a book like this which is somewhat polemical, it would be a redeeming feature to hint more broadly at what the government should do differently (other than bringing in local conscripts).  There are also some religious issues: notably Sunnis vs. Shiites, but there are problems for Christians and Hindus, as well.  How do these issues fit into the over-arching themes of justice and freedom?

Ms. Bhutto’s writing in quite engaging.  Occasionally, there is a too long sentence which requires a second reading to gain understanding.  And, like all ‘young, modern authors’ she likes to use unconventional words rather than the conventional.  Mostly, this works well, but there is the occasional grating which disturbs the flow.  The characterisation of the two older brothers, the female sweetheart and the Pakistani colonel are all clear and intriguing.  The character of the youngest brother – the insurgent – is somewhat opaque.  We can understand why the two older brothers do what they do, but what – apart from his father’s lectures – motivates this brother to be an insurgent?

An interesting book and a particularly interesting author. I’m sure we’ll hear more from her!

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