If you watched the TV series Homeland, you likely were moved when you saw the characters Brody and Abu Nazir grieve at the death, by drone strike, of Abu Nazir’s little son in Pakistan, along with eighty-one of his playmates. But for the purposes of the show’s arc, the chief significance of that tragedy was not the death of the children; it was the ammunition that the misaimed missile gave to Al-Qaeda, strengthening its fight against the West and opening the door to retaliation. On television, that retaliation took the form of isolated incidents, like a (fictional) attack on CIA headquarters, in Langley, Virginia. In actual life, however, drone attacks continued in Pakistan, amid a spate of mounting regional conflicts, old and new. What are the consequences of constant warfare in countries where war is being waged for real? And how do people decide which rules and mores still matter when death can fall from the sky at any instant, while armed zealots roam the land like wolves, preying on the vulnerable? It’s convenient to mull such thoughts from the remove of half a century or more — say, in the context of Europe during World War II; or Vietnam during “Operation Rolling Thunder.” It’s less comfortable to face them while the battle is still ongoing, as it has been in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade.
Fatima Bhutto’s exquisite and disturbing novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, draws attention to present realities in her homeland by showing how the collapse of civic order ravages one normal Pakistani family. “There was an injustice that was swallowing their people whole,” she writes. Through her portrayal of three brothers and the women who love them — Mina, the wife of the middle brother and mother of their little boy; and Samarra, the flashing-eyed fiancée of the elder brother, and a close friend of the youngest — she gives the reader a visceral sense of how destabilizing it feels on a personal level when “violence has started to follow you home,” not for days or weeks but for years.
Fatima Bhutto has extraordinary experience with this emotion; she is the granddaughter of the former Pakistani president and prime minister Zulkifar Ali Bhutto, who was assassinated in 1979 by General Zia ul-Haq; and she is the daughter of the firebrand politician Murtaza Bhutto, arrested in 1993 (on charges of terrorism) at the behest of his sister, Benazir Bhutto (then Pakistan’s prime minister) and slain in 1996, when the author was fourteen. She also, of course, is the niece of her father’s powerful sister, who was killed in 2007 while campaigning for a return to the premiership. Although this is Ms. Bhutto’s first novel, it is not her first book; she also has published a volume of poetry and two works of nonfiction, including the memoir Songs of Blood and Sword (2011), about the tensions roiling beneath the surface in her family. Born in Kabul, raised in Damascus, educated in New York, she lives today in Karachi and writes now not of her influential relatives but of her country’s ordinary citizens, under siege.
The author sets The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in the frontier town of Mir Ali, in Waziristan, near the Afghan border, in a nonspecific recent past. On the morning of the Islamic holy festival of Eid, the brothers — Aman Erum (recently returned from years of study in America), Sikandar (a doctor at the local hospital), and Hayat (a hotheaded student at Mir Ali’s university) — gather for breakfast in the kitchen of their parental home. Sikandar’s wife, Mina, does not join them at the table for fragrant chai, hot parathas, and omelets. Once, Mina was a wry, clever, life-loving woman — a lecturer in psychology at the university. But since the death of her and Sikandar’s son in a Taliban attack, his flashing “Bubblegummer” sneakers identifying him in the rubble, Mina has grown moody and strange. She has quit teaching and devotes her energies to gate-crashing the funerals of strangers’ children, “to look for her grief in the lines of other mothers’ faces,” finding comfort in their shared pain. When distressed mourners call to complain, Sikandar must come fetch his erratic wife.
On this day, the first of Eid, the brothers have separate plans, some of which include their family friend Samarra. Before Aman Erum went to America to study business, it had been expected that he would return to Mir Ali after getting his degree and marry Samarra. He had revered her since she was a tomboyish girl who joined her father, Ghazan Afridi, on annual fishing trips where Aman Erum went with his father. But Ghazan Afridi left his family when Samarra was seventeen and never returned. When Aman Erum returns from America, he finds a new fierceness in Samarra whose cause the author keeps hidden, smoldering, for a long while. It is Hayat, the younger brother, who now has Samarra’s confidence. After the breakfast, as the two older brothers fan out across the city, Hayat and Samarra will meet on the back of a motorcycle, planning mayhem. What is Aman Erum up to? He doesn’t say. In this suspicious environment, nobody can trust anybody, no matter how closely blood connects them.
Mild-mannered Sikandar will drive off that day to a medical emergency, with Mina sitting sullenly in the van beside him. Talib vigilantes will accost them. “Zalim!” Mina will screech at the turbaned Talibs, as they menace the couple with Kalashnikovs. “Unjust! Mina screams till her voice is hoarse.” Her husband quails, frightened by his wife’s temerity. “There is no greater slur Mina could have leveled,” he thinks in panic. “These men are students of justice. They can be accused of being violent, of being rash, of anything but injustice. They have built their war around the battle of the just against the unjust.” But anger and grief have removed Mina’s fear. She has a truth to tell, and unleashes it with conviction. Her maternal rage cows their assailants; but her brother-in-law, Hayat, had he been with them, likely would have doubted that her words’ effect would have lingered long. He remembers other times when citizens felt sure that protest would improve their condition. “People prepared for a change, for a reversal of forces and fortune, only to be beaten back harder, more viciously, as punishment for their daring,” he reflects. Hayat prefers persuasion through action, not words. But how long can the impact of violent action linger, either, when it is so soon overtaken by other, often stronger, detonations?
Bhutto deftly interconnects these sensitive, warring wires in her novel, assembling a plot as puzzling and intricate as a time bomb. Her artistry impresses; she shows how much delicacy and risk go into building the machinery of change; how terribly difficult it is to put the pieces back together when it breaks; and how little it takes to blow it all apart.