The Warlord's Son by Dan Fesperman
Stanford J. Kelly aka Skelly is an ex-war correspondent whose third marriage and imminent delivery of first grandchild are not enough to escape the emptiness of reporting on America’s Walmarts. In the wake of 9/11 Skelly finds his war reporting skills in demand again and he jumps at the opportunity to answer his editors’ pleas: ‘Help us understand…Why do they hate us?’
Skelly finds himself in Peshawar Pakistan where the stereotypical divide between East and West seems at its quintessential—burka clad women, Kalashnikov wielding men, a region of heat and dust and laws unto itself. ‘The sun does not rise in Peshawar. It seeps’, begins the novel, ‘even the dust swirling down from the Khyber never settles and instead prowls restlessly as if awaiting a fresh breeze to carry it to some farther, better destination.’ The image perfectly captures the novel’s overriding theme of restlessness, of people wanting to move on but not knowing what moving on really means.
Skelly is intent on entering Afghanistan to report from the eye of the storm, an achievement requiring an excellent fixer, a translator of not just language but also cultural nuances and norms. The Warlord’s Son details effectively the often tenuous relationship between Skelly and his fixer, Najeeb, a wealthy warlord’s son. Najeeb, destined for a great future dashes it when he betrays his father to the ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA. Indeed the ISI manipulates Najeeb throughout the novel and Fesperman deftly weaves this twenty something’s helplessness with the social politics along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Najeeb is that rare creature in Peshawar, a man without family but with a girlfriend, Daliya, also estranged from her family on account of refusing an arranged marriage.
Much of the novel’s plot is driven by the story of these unlikely lovers and is handled very well with unexpected twists and turns. Indeed Fesperman has drawn Najeeb and his girlfriend Daliya tenderly and intricately, more so than even Skelly who at times can be a bit pedantic. I was most impressed by Fesperman’s handling of Daliya, a young Pakistani girl confused between her desires and society’s. Some aspects might stretch the limit— pretending to be a boy to enter tribal territory, her having sex the very first time she spends the night with Najeeb—but these matings do happen in real life and more needs to be written about them.
Daliya, Najeeb and Skelly are all essentially victims of their respective cultural expectations be it in America or in Pakistan and this I think is the most fascinating theme in the novel, that there are people stifled in the West just as there are people stifled in the East. Who are our friends? Who can we trust? What does that mean? How long does it take for a friendship and trust to develop? What is the nature of betrayal? These are questions that The Warlord’s Son attempts to answer and on which its startling yet wonderfully fittingly climax is based. Indeed bone chilling events such as hangings and particularly the arbitrariness of life are written with such detail that they haunt long after the novel is put down.
Fesperman is an award winning author of two other novels Lie in the Dark and The Small Boat of Great Sorrows both set in the Balkans. He reported for The Baltimore Sun from post 9/11 Afghanistan and, though The Warlord’s Son may not eventually answer Why They Hate Us, it is a treat for anyone interested in a steady paced thriller that also explores the culture of tribes who still live by ancient laws rather than the laws of the land.