Review: Vivien Horler
The Long Road from Kandahar, by Sara MacDonald (HarperCollins)
This novel is dedicated to the men and women who fought in Britain’s Operation Herrick, Afghanistan, between 2002 and 2014.
Operation Herrick was the code name for the British military operations in Afghanistan in that period. More than 450 British military personnel died and untold more were injured.
And of course that was just on the British side.
The war between the West and the Taliban is the strong backdrop to this story, but the main narrative centres on an unlikely friendship between two young boys, Finn, whose family roots are in England’s Cornwall, and Raza, who lives in the Swat Valley in Pakistan.
Raza is a goat herd, who enlivens his days pretending to be a Talib like his older brothers, firing at imagined enemies with his makeshift wooden rifle. But his father Zamir, unhappy with the hard men his older sons have become, and aware they plan to induct Raza into the Taliban in the near future, is determined to engineer a better life for Raza.
It so happens Zamir has family in England, a young medical couple who have been unable to have children of their own. And so the couple flies to Rawalpindi to collect the unsuspecting boy.
Meanwhile Finn lives in Germany on a British Army base with his soldier father Ben, Finnish mother Hanna and little sister. Finn is old enough to be aware of the tensions between his parents, and is anxious about his family’s future.
In the summer of 2009 Ben and his family drive to Cornwall for a few weeks of summer holidays, prior to Ben’s embarkation for Afghanistan. They stay in a beach house near Penzance owned by Ben’s mother Delphi, Finn’s beloved granny who provides a weekend home for him during his breaks from boarding school.
From Finn’s point of view it’s an idyllic holiday of surfing and beach, until at the end of the break and with Ben about to leave for war, Hanna announces she is not returning to Germany but is going home to Finland and taking Finn’s little sister with her.
Finn is devastated and furious.
Back at school there’s a new boy, Raza, in Finn’s dormitory, and Finn is asked by the housemaster to keep an eye on him. By this time Raza has been in England for two years, and speaks passable English, but feels displaced and is desperate to go home to Pakistan.
Despite their disparate backgrounds, the boys form an unlikely friendship, both suffering from being separated from their fathers. Zamir is elderly and ill, and in Helmand Province any day could be Ben’s last.
While the story focuses on the boys, the boys’ families, especially Finn’s, are the important background. Ben’s fears of an IED killing or maiming him are explored, as well as Delphi’s attempts to provide a family home for them all despite her concern for Finn and Ben, and her disapproval of Hanna’s flight to Finland at a time when her family need her most.
And then there is Raza, who gets a chance to go home – but will he be swallowed by the Taliban or will he return to England?
The novel provides a reminder that what appears to be the carefree life of early teens can be anything but.
Sara MacDonald is based in Cornwall, but has been a British army wife and the mother of a soldier in Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan. In 2009 she spent a year in north Pakistan, and all these experiences feed into this story.
In an author’s note she writes: “In August 2021, with my book finished and delivered to my publisher, I watched the fall of Afghanistan with horror, and wept. The speed of it was surreal. I could never have predicted such a bleak abandonment and ending.
“I wanted The Long Road from Kandahar to be about the power of the human spirit to endure, the strength of friendship and love, and the ability to find joy in each other and to move forward with hope.”
I think she has achieved that, for her characters at any rate. Not so much for the people of Afghanistan.
- This book was one of Exclusive Books’ top books for June. MacDonald says some of the proceeds are going to Help4Heroes, a charity which provides lifelong support to wounded British soldiers and their families, and to the Afghan Red Crescent.