They can be found in every contemporary war zone – daredevil journalists, amoral mercenaries, and assorted foreign do-gooders. Some go seeking adventure, some are addicted to warfare, and others are plagued by liberal guilt over the geopolitical sins of western powers. Their stories are told vividly in the new novel by Deni Ellis Béchard, best known for his 2006 novel Vandal Love, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book.
The story begins in the Afghanistan city of Kabul in 2012. Three foreigners in a complicated love triangle are killed by a bomb while riding in the same car. There’s Alexandra, a Canadian human-rights worker, and two American men: Clay, the devious security contractor, and Justin, the volunteer school teacher. The remains of their Afghan driver, Idris, are not found. Did he survive? Was he responsible?
The evidence points to an attack specifically targeting the three foreigners. But why them? A Japanese-American journalist, Michiko, decides to find answers, which she then intends to use as the basis for a novel. Her journey takes her to Louisiana, where Clay and Justin were boyhood friends; to Alexandra’s native Quebec; and finally to Dubai. As Michiko digs, poignant and disturbing facts emerge about the dead trio’s pasts. They each arrived in Afghanistan having suffered trauma, and saw the country as a chance to heal, or at the very least, seek escape from their torments.
The novel also supplies Idris’s backstory. A bright young man who longs to attend university in America and become a scientist, Idris finds his goals repeatedly thwarted by his Kabul school, which also employs him, without pay, to run errands. The school’s American director and teachers are really only interested in the girls, to whom they provide scholarships to study abroad as a means of escaping Afghanistan. Local boys, it is felt, can look after themselves, a prejudice that makes Idris resentful.
Béchard has himself reported from Afghanistan and other conflict zones, and writes authoritatively about the expat social scene in Kabul. It’s a life of danger, booze, superficial romances, and non-stop negotiations with Afghan fixers, local authorities, and foreign adventurers. The author’s obvious experience sitting around hotel bars in Third World hotspots swapping that day’s war stories renders his characters recognizable and relatable.
Stylistically, the writing is strong, although the flowery similes are often more clunky than poetical. And the plotting falters. Alexandra’s attraction to both the dodgy Clay and the chaste Justin lacks credibility. Most problematic is Michiko, the journalist who serves as the story’s moral compass. She remains amorphous throughout, has unlimited money – from who knows where – to travel the world, and is capable of eliciting troubling secrets from strangers far too easily. She seems plucked from some other, inferior novel.
Those issues aside, Into the Sun is a dark and bleak tale set in a land that contains no altruistic good guys or much hope for the future. The ending, in which the mystery of the car bomb is solved, will undoubtedly disturb many, but not really surprise anyone familiar with the kind of war stories that get passed around by expats in Kabul hotels.