Book: What Changes Everything (NEW June 2013) by Masha Hamilton
(Disclosure: years ago, before she had published her first novel, I knew Masha Hamilton when she lived in Tucson)
Before you even open this book, you get a treat. The dust jacket is the most striking cover art I’ve seen this year. And the style and choice of artwork becomes clear when you read the book. I spend a lot of time complaining about book covers, so I wanted to take this opportunity to praise the publisher, Unbridled Books and designers David Ryski and Kathleen Lynch.
Even better–in this case you CAN tell a book by its cover. What Changes Everything is as innovative, arresting, gritty, relevant and personal as the cover suggests. Masha Hamilton clearly knows the country and the people–Americans in Brooklyn, Afghans, Russian emigres–that she writes about. She currently serves as the press officer for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Even before that, she had been a regular in Afghanistan, and founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project–and if you don’t know about it, you can learn more in this article I wrote about AWWP.
Masha Hamilton is a fearless writer. That too, hardly is surprising, given that she spent years as a foreign correspondent, some of that in war zones. Her bold approach to life is echoed in her bold approach to writing. Normally I am put off by novels that are fragmented–jumping from character to character as point of view shifts in each chapter and I have to piece the story together. But the style is entirely appropriate for this story that combines the main story of an aid worker who is kidnapped in Kabul when he goes to buy ice cream, with the story of a mother and brother trying to make sense of the death in Afghanistan of their son/brother, and the story of a mother of a double amputee–injured while on duty in Afghanistan.
The jittery uncertainty of living in this country where no one is clearly a friend and death can come at you around any corner, the fractured feeling of different cultures clashing, all this is reflected in the form of the novel. The uncertainty spills over into the lives of those left in America by soldiers and humanitarian workers who go to Afghanistan, and even affects an Afghan man who went to college in the United States but returned to his country as half-outsider, unsure of how to navigate.
The small pieces of each person’s story comes together to form a picture of a still puzzling situation, both within Afghanistan and between the U.S. and Afghanistan. The questions of lawlessness, authority (who has it and is it legitimate), individual responsibility and respect for others all roll around inside the pages of What Changes Everything.
And yet there is the core story–the will he survive story–that keeps us riveted. And there is the introduction of a foreign culture–no, two foreign cultures. The culture of Afghanistan and the culture of a tagger in Brooklyn are portrayed with loads of detail because Masha Hamilton knows them both. She lives both places. (Not as a tagger, I hasten to add–but in Brooklyn.) Her observation is keen and clear.
Amin spread his rug on the ground behind the office and then parted his lips to inhale fully. A crippled sparrow stood in stingy bush-shade and watched. Smoke and exhaust threaded through Kabul’s air, and the city’s tensions pressed against the compound walls…
The Afghanistan the author shows us is not a place travelers are going to want to go any time soon, but still it is good to know something more about a country that has this unwanted connection with the United States. And we can see why some Americans sincerely love Afghanistan and the Afghan people and want to go there, even while it is dangerous. And it makes us want peace to come so we can see it for ourselves.
Clarissa, the wife left behind in Brooklyn, thinks about Todd, who has been kidnapped:
There were people who spent their whole lives in one zip code, and then people who constantly fled for new adventures, horizons, and faces…..Now Todd was held prisoner on soil stained by decades of bloodshed, in a part of the planet that had felt to him almost like a second home and seemed to her so unlikely as to be imaginary.
Brooklyn, on the other hand, plays second fiddle to Manhattan when travelers go to New York City, but Masha Hamilton, tempts us to travel to Brooklyn, too. The tagger, Danil, the tagger, visits a bit of Brooklyn history, that he explains is visited mostly by “urban explorers, photographers, and the occasional graffiti writer”:
He passed through the vine-claimed front door and headed cautiously up to the second floor. Admiral’s Row, once an oasis of stately entryways and arched windows for high-ranking military officers, was built in the late 1800s complete with a skating rink, greenhouse, parade grounds , and a sense of exclusivity.
This book goes on the list of books that one reader can choose if he/she subscribes by e-mail to A Traveler’s Library during June. But if you don’t choose it now, get your hands on it at your bookstore, or at your library or at Amazon. You’ll be glad you did.
Note: This book was provided for review by the publisher, but my opinions are still my own. When you click a link to Amazon on this site, anything you buy will help support A Traveler’s Library. Thanks for your help.
See my review of Masha Hamilton’s book set in historic Jordan, Staircase of a Thousand Steps. She has also written The Camel Bookmobile, set in Africa; The Distance Between Us, about an American journalist in the Mid East; and 31 Hours, about a young would-be terrorist in New York.