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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, the small nation has languished in an aura of mystery as thick as the dust that chokes its craggy landscape. As a result, writers who have attempted to penetrate this mystery, from Doris Lessing to William T. Vollmann, inevitably flounder in the process. In his sumptuous, elegantly written first book, An Unexpected Light, Jason Elliot deftly avoids this pitfall, plunging headfirst into the hurly-burly world of Afghanistan's culture, politics, and history. Unearthing the beginnings of a people descended from half a dozen cultures and now wracked by a costly civil war, he reveals a country of great depth and humanity, one that survives by the grace of a stubborn and alluring dignity.
Like the best travel books, An Unexpected Light enters its territory through the imagination and memory of its author. Afghanistan first took a hold in Elliot's mind when, as a youngster growing up in the late '70s, he sympathized with the plight of its beleaguered people. As a 19-year-old college student, he arranged to be smuggled inside its borders during a summer vacation. Elliot's risky visit, aided and abetted by the mujaheddin, freedom fighters holding off Soviet troops, quickly dispelled his romantic notions of war. Shells, bullets, and the shock waves of exploding artillery provided numerous close calls, which recounted here, raise the hairs of armchair travelers. Yet these experiences did not slake Elliot's thirst to learn more about Afghanistan.
Ten years later he reentered the country during the Taliban's rise to power. This visit becomes the driving force of his book's narrative, which zigzags between history, the present, and Elliot's personal memories of his hasty and dangerous first visit. Although his forays into Afghanistan's history and the ideas of Sufism are fascinating and well researched, An Unexpected Light truly soars when recounting Elliot's many improbable adventures. Elliot is a natural storyteller, and he sketches with ironic and touching detail the cagey expat community in Kabul, the war-wracked capital city. When he heads north, led by self-effacing guides toward the beautiful mountainous regions near the Uzbekistan border, Elliot's prose sings with rich and sensitively recorded particulars of the Afghan culture and landscape.
In the end, like the best in travel literature, An Unexpected Light is as meditatively philosophical as it is poetically exact. Hopping into a jeep with ten strangers on his way to a region peppered with constant shelling, Elliot writes: "There it was again, that feeling that the journey was becoming more than the sum of its parts, more like a clandestine sculpting work within me, which in the visible world I was merely acting out." It is a testament to the power of this book, that without setting foot on Afghan soil, the reader feels the tingling of this secret process beginning inside him as well.
John Freeman is a freelance writer who lives in New York.