Friday, January 29, 2021

Review: The Night Letters

Title: The Night Letters
Author:  Denise Leith

Publisher: 7th October 2020 by Ventura Press

Pages: 400 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: fiction, contemporary, cultural Afghanistan

My Rating: 4 cups


For five years, Australian doctor Sofia Raso has lived in Kabul’s vibrant Shaahir Square, working with Dr Jabril Aziz to support the local women. She knows that living peacefully in Kabul requires following two simple rules: keep a low profile; and keep out of local affairs. 

Yet when threatening night letters from the Taliban taunt the town, and young boys disappear from Jamal Mina, Kabul’s largest slum, Sofia can no longer remain silent. While the square is encased by fear, an elegant former warlord proves an unlikely ally, and a former lover re-emerges with a warning. As the search for the boys intensifies, and Sofia feels herself being drawn back into a love affair she thought had ended, it soon becomes clear that answers will bring a heavy price.

 Gripping and evocative, The Night Letters takes you to the heart of Kabul in a story of secrets, friendship and love in all its imperfect guises.

My Thoughts

‘After five years of living in Afghanistan she was finding her silences harder to hold, and yet remain silent she did. The stakes were simply too high to do otherwise. Silent and invisible was what Sofia needed to be ... She might be living in Afghanistan but she would always remain an outsider ...’

This is the second novel in the past few weeks that has taken me to a place I have never been or knew little about (the other being Iraq in When the Apricots Bloom). I very much  enjoyed Denise’s portrayal of life in Afghanistan for both the locals and expats. This is an intriguing story about life in Kabul when the Taliban took over Afghanistan as told mostly by Sofia Rosa, an Australian doctor living and working there. Having lived the expat life myself, I was most appreciative of how she captures the totally different lifestyle compared to my Western one. 

‘Sofia wanted to experience more of life than ‘normal’, and now that she had there was no way she could ever step back into the ‘normal’ of Sydney.’

Sofia lives and works in Shaahir Square and develops life changing relationships with the local community and the women she is there to assist. The book does include some other points of view, however, Sofia’s contributions are obviously the strongest. The reader is given an honest and engaging window into life in Kabul under the Taliban from all points of view. Such an obviously oppressive system to live and work under and it is this that makes for a most compelling plot aside from what life is like on a day to day basis. 

‘What sort of tenacity or desperation, she often wondered, forced people to build in such a place? Life was hard enough in the cities; in the country it could be soul-destroying. People aged quickly and died early in Afghanistan, but it was not always disease, childbirth, bad diet or even war that killed them. Sometimes it was just life.’

Although it was slow to start I became invested in many of the characters, particularly the Afghan women and their stoic determination - both young and old - to work for good. I have mixed feelings about the ending. On the one hand, one of the lead characters signing off for the novel as a whole was bittersweet. Yet on the other hand I did not feel that, after investing in the lives and the serious nature of some of the plot lines, there was enough of a satisfactory conclusion. 

‘What you do with the women in the square is enough. It’s more than enough and we’re so grateful that you are doing this. We can’t change Afghanistan, Sofia. None of us can individually and certainly outsiders can’t.’

All up, however, I very much enjoyed my time spent in Kabul and the glimpse it provided into what truly is a whole other world. With a little romance, themes of protection of the young and vulnerable and a taste of life on the street it will be a book that I definitely recommend.

‘Without any doubt, the women of Afghanistan were marshalling their strength and gathering their resources and would one day be a force to be reckoned with.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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