Book review: A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman

a door in the earth amy waldman

Parveen is an Afghan-American anthropology student in California. Her progressive ideas are influenced by a driven and dynamic professor, but she becomes intrigued after reading a book by an equally charismatic American humanitarian, Gideon Crane.

In Mother Afghanistan, Crane tells a redemptive tale of how his self-indulgent life travelling was turned around by the death of a woman while he was in Afghanistan. Fereshta died because she did not have adequate maternity care. He has devoted his life since to providing a clinic and raising funds to maintain it.

Ignoring the scepticism of her professor, Parveen decides to combine her interest in Afghanistan with her academic studies. She contacts Crane’s NGO, asking if she can travel to his clinic and study the women in the community. Predictably, when she arrives in the village it isn’t quite as painted in Crane’s book and media appearances.

A Door in the Earth is beautifully observed and shows life in Afghanistan in all its complexity. It shows the shock that Parveen experiences in a world so different from her own. She speaks Dari but the world of her urban, educated family is far removed from that of the village. I particularly like the detail about the absence of the written word, how reading is the only learned activity we do involuntarily, and in the West we constantly find ourselves reading without meaning to – signs, billboards, cereal packets, all of which are absent.

Parveen lives with the dead Fereshta’s husband, Waheed, his two wives and many children, and explores the complicated dynamics of the household and the village. She learns that the relationships aren’t always as we imagine, and perhaps the only implausibility, given her background and academic interests, is that she continues to accept Crane’s version of events far longer than is credible.

We are often given an image of rural Afghanistan which suggests a static society, impervious to outside influence, progressive or otherwise. What Parveen learns is that this is a society in flux. For example, the women have only been completely covering themselves outdoors since the war brought an influx of outsiders. The equilibrium shifts again when the US Army arrives, apparently bearing gifts, along with the same translator who worked with Crane.

Parveen observes, and at times confronts, many different types of power imbalance, between genders, between people of different wealth and status, and most powerfully between the US and Afghanistan. Her odd status in the village gives her freedoms and at times power – she is able to speak to senior army officers for example, in a way that no one else in the village, male or female, can. But it also means she is an outsider.

A Door in the Earth beautifully illustrates the contingent nature of truth. When Parveen meets the translator working with the troops, she initially mistrusts the way he speaks to the villagers, feeling he is misleading them about what the army officer has said. He explains that the framing of the situation, the concepts, the worldview of the US Army and the villagers are so different it is impossible to offer them a literal translation. He is trying to create a perspective that will lead to some kind of consensus. Most of all, he is trying to survive.

The contact between the US Army and the village has consequences for a number of the characters. Even those who have apparently powerful roles in the community  find themselves forced, by the constraints upon them, to act in a particular way.

Parveen’s changing understanding of the place where she is living, the oblique nature of the conversations she has, the different discourses of the various characters, each with their own interests, are brilliantly portrayed. The decisions she takes show the journey she has taken, but the book offers no easy answers, no happy ever after, just a hint of a potential future.

I received a copy of A Door in the Earth from the publisher via Netgalley.
View A Door in the Earth on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? A Door in the Earth made me think some more about Zeynep Tufekci’s thoughtful post on sociological versus psychological storytelling for Scientific American NB Contains Game of Thrones spoilers!

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