Wednesday, June 13, 2012

REVIEW: The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Published 2012 by Hogarth Press. Literary Fiction.

If you want a book that's going to pull you in a dozen different emotional directions, confuse you, intrigue you, then rip your heart into shreds, The Watch is the book for you. It's a brilliant, multi-dimensional examination of the war in Afghanistan told from different points of view- an Afghan woman, a translator, a military doctor, a commander, and more.

The basic story centers on a troubling, ambiguous incident taking place in the middle of the Kandahar plains. After a brutal firefight between U.S. forces and Afghan insurgents, a lone woman, legless, wheels herself towards a U.S. military outpost to demand the return of her brother's remains for burial. Her brother was killed in the battle and she wants to bury him according to her culture's requirements. A Tajik translator is sent to talk to her, to explain that the U.S. military will not return it to her. They fear that she is a suicide bomber and that she is lying, and they have orders with respect to the body.

The book shifts the point of view among an array of characters- the woman, first, then a lieutenant, then the outpost's doctor, then the translator, and more military personnel, and shifts a little through time, too. We get back story and extended narratives from some of the characters, and we meet the Kandahar storyline at slightly different points on the timeline, too. I liked that Roy-Bhattacharya did not just tell the same story over and over from different points of view Rashomon-style but gives us different segments and facets of the story as well as the characters. Telling the story this way, a little broken up, helped keep it interesting and fresh for me.

Then there's the incident itself, and the woman's intentions, which Roy-Bhattacharya wisely keeps us guessing at right till the end. And I do mean the end, as in the very last words. There's so much going on around this character- so much drama swirling, emotional issues, issues about the nature of military service, the demands on soldiers for obedience, the psychological stress of battlefield life and the specific right- or wrong-ness of the Afghan war- that it's easy to forget that she's what the story is about, that her mission is the embodiment of the mess that is this war. Roy-Bhattacharya draws all of his characters with a devastating humanity- you can't help but feel for all of them, what they're all going through, from the conflicted translator and the overworked doctor and even the rule-bearing commander. But it's this woman who carries the most devastating burden of all.

It's very challenging and not always easy to read in terms of the ideas and psychological complexity of its universe, but it's a really incredible book. It will truly stay with you for a long time after you put it down, and you won't want to. I was not intending to read it to the end when I picked it up; I thought I was just going to be dipping in and maybe coming back later, but Roy-Bhattacharya hooked me from page 1. So here I've written a lot about this book, and in the final analysis what I want to say is that it's a brilliant novel.

Click here for some other recommended reads about Afghanistan.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.