On a cold, clear winter night, a party is interrupted by gunfire. From a luxurious safe room, the guests–journalists, security contractors, human rights lawyers, teachers–watch as the home in which they were relaxing moments before is stormed by armed men. It’s 2012 in Kabul, ten years into the US occupation, and in the expatriate community that has sprung up in the wake of the invasion, such contradictions are commonplace–frivolity and boredom give way to sudden violence, and idealism and opportunism mix freely. The people at the party have come to Kabul for similarly varied reasons–some out of faith, some out of passion, some out of greed–but all of them are united by a common desire for reinvention. And in just a few days, three of them will be dead.
Thus begins Into The Sun, the haunting, ambitious, and utterly compelling second novel from Deni Ellis Béchard, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for 2007’s Vandal Love.
“At parties,” the novel’s narrator observes early on, “we laughed about those who’d become unhinged in their quest for purpose while we quietly worried about our own.” Béchard’s Afghanistan is not a nation of constant danger–it’s a nation of constant redefinition. While the country’s residents struggle with an unending cycle of violence, poverty, and corruption, the western civilians who come to write, teach, or work for NGOs lose themselves in personal quests.
Justin, Alexandra, and Clay seem like an improbable trio–casual acquaintances united only in their sudden, violent deaths, when the car they are sharing explodes in the center of the Afghan capital. But when Michiko, a journalist who has found herself pulled to Afghanistan by its promise of danger, self-sacrifice, and personal purpose, begins to dig into their pasts, she discovers that the chain of events that brought them together–in this strange and merciless country, in the safe room, and on the day they died–was set in motion long ago.
Clay and Justin attended high school together in Louisiana, before a tangled web of circumstances and a singular act of violence drove them apart. A decade later, Justin was a devout Christian teaching at a run-down school, and Clay, discharged from the military, was a private contractor specializing in “K&R”–kidnapping and ransom. Alexandra, a Quebecois lawyer drawn to the latent brutality of the newly-opened war zone, came to Kabul to provide legal help to imprisoned women, and became connected to both men.
Clay reinvented himself as a mercenary after a military career that ended in disgrace. Justin, unable to join the army, reinvented himself as something of a missionary, a zealous educator who sought to “save” his students. Alexandra reinvented herself as a response to the violence she faced as a young woman.
During their time in Kabul, all three became involved with Frank, the fervent, unyielding founder of the school at which Justin taught, and with Idris, an Afghan boy who worked for Frank as a driver, handyman and general laborer, ostensibly in exchange for an education.
When Michiko learns that Idris, who was working in vain for a scholarship to the United States, may have been in the car with her friends, she realizes that it isn’t just expatriates trying to reinvent themselves in Kabul–in this new frontier, everyone is chasing what they believe is their manifest destiny.
Béchard, who, as a journalist, has reported from the Congo, Iraq, and Columbia in addition to his time in Afghanistan, captures with an exacting eye the strange mixture of hubris, aspiration, and almost childlike conviction that drives people from all over the world into places of conflict. It is with that same journalist’s perception that he explores the lives of those who have no choice–the ordinary citizens of Kabul, caught up in ceaseless years of warfare. His characters seek affirmation, fulfillment, a paycheck, or perhaps just to survive, but they all seek something–something that they will redefine themselves, again and again, to attain.
As thought-provoking as it is engaging, Into The Sun is a remarkable study of how we all shape our identities, and of how our constant reinventions may ultimately define us–and perhaps destroy us.
Into the Sun by Deni Ellis Béchard (Milkweed Editions |9781571311146 | September 20, 2016)