Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

First Lines: One. Two. Three. Four. I count the moments and say the Basmala in my head.

The American soldiers in Combat Outpost Tarsándan deep in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan have just been through a fierce all-night battle. Several of them have been killed. The survivors are exhausted, upset and on edge. It is not the best time for Nizam to come to claim the body of her brother, but that is exactly what she's done.

Nizam, the rest of whose family was killed by the bomb-dropping drone that took both her legs, insists on giving her brother a proper burial, but the soldiers can't trust her. She could be a spy, a lunatic, or a suicide bomber. Besides, the chain of command believes her brother to have been a Taliban leader, and his body is to be sent elsewhere to be made an example of. Nizam insists this isn't true and refuses to leave, forcing this  beleaguered group of soldiers to make a tough decision. What are they going to do? See this dilemma solely in terms of black and white-- or in shades of grey? Follow orders, or do what's right?

The story begins from Nizam's point of view, and the author immediately puts the reader on her side-- feeling her pain, her exhaustion and her grief. It is a powerful beginning which then shifts to the men inside the outpost. The clock is turned back a couple of days, showing the time leading up to the deadly attack and its aftermath, which explains the soldiers' emotional mindsets.

Chapter by chapter, we're introduced to them and to the Afghan interpreter assigned to the outpost. As the story advances and the reader compares the American point of view to Nizam's, the misunderstandings that lead to the final outcome are clear.

Some of the men are educated and have made at least a rudimentary effort to learn something about the area, its people, its customs and language. However, most of the soldiers are barely in their twenties and have chosen a life in the military for the paycheck. For these soldiers, it was a choice of the army or a "life in methland." They've made no effort to learn anything about the country they're in or about the people who live there. It's a recipe for disaster.

From the strong, emotional beginning, the book eventually began to lose some momentum for me. The author had a set way of introducing the soldiers, and this formulaic method made many of them appear one-dimensional. The exception to this was the interpreter, a young man who naively believed that all the soldiers were wealthy, well-educated, and in Afghanistan to fight for the ideals of freedom and justice. Since those are two things that he desperately desires for his country, when he's asked to interpret for the soldiers and for Nizam, too often he puts his own feelings above the need for accurate translation.

In the end, I found a great deal to admire in the book, but I believe the author tried too hard to get the point across that America must get out of Afghanistan. Nizam was in the right; the Americans were in the wrong. Seldom in life are things so cut and dried. How much more powerful the message would have been if truths had been dispensed with an even hand.

ISBN: 9780307955890
Hogarth   ©2012
Hardcover, 304 pages

Genre: Suspense/Thriller
Rating: B-
Source: Amazon Vine


  1. Cathy - Thanks for your thoughtful review. It does sound as though there's a lot to like in this book. I know exactly what you mean about the "preaching," if you want to call it that, though. You're right that when the author is too heavy-handed with a message, or it's repeated too often, etc., it does take away from the story and ultimately from the power of the message.

    1. It didn't come across as preaching at all, just very heavy-handed with the slant so that, as I read, I kept questioning what I'd read. (Which can be a very good thing!)

  2. Cathy, I'm of the opinion that it's much too soon for anything meaningful to come of our experience in Afghanistan yet. It's still going on (unfortunately) and thus too fresh, too raw for any rational thought about what is happening there and what that is doing to people on both sides. That's why I'm passing on anything except Afghanistan's history.

    1. All I know is that a lot of high-falutin' countries have gone there thinking that they knew what was best... and they returned home completely baffled.

  3. What a fantastically well thought through review. I will admit that this isn't my usual type of read, but it does sound intriguing. I am not sure if I could deal with the 'preachy' tone though, so I may give this one a miss. Thanks for your honesty! :)

    New to your blog!
    Steph @ Stepping Out of the Page

    1. Glad you found me, Steph. Thanks for leaving a comment!


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