Fiction – paperback; Quattro Books; 124 pages; 2017.
Given the appalling events that have played out in Afghanistan recently following the United States military withdrawal, this novella was a timely read.
The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, by Ele Pawelski, is set in Afghanistan in 2011, some ten years after the Taliban was ousted by the US invasion. It is based on a real event in which a supermarket, popular with foreigners, was targeted by a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of at least eight people.
The book opens with that deadly bomb attack, before telling the stories of three distinct characters caught up in the blast:
- Merza, a young idealistic Afghan man who has been elected to Parliament and is now receiving death threats;
- Alec, an American journalist, who has been embedded with a US platoon in Kandahar but is now in Kabul hoping to write some yet-to-be-commissioned pieces about life in the Afghan capital; and
- Elyssa, a Canadian human rights lawyer, who is helping to train female magistrates but is being sexually harassed by a male justice.
The story, which is told in simple, stripped-back prose, spans a single day, giving us just a brief glimpse into the lives of these well-drawn, if slightly clichéd, characters.
Too much explanation
While the novella moves along at a clip, it doesn’t skimp on detail, but it does feel like there’s a lot of information shoe-horned in to fill the reader in on background detail that most of us are probably pretty familiar with anyway. (For example, that Hamid Karzai was leader, that women’s lives were less restrictive now the Taliban had been banished, that English-speaking Afghans working with foreigners were regarded as “infidels” and putting their own lives at risk.)
In short, everything is explained; the reader doesn’t have to figure a single thing out. Here’s just a random example:
Nearing the city centre, the traffic is busy as I’d anticipated. A decade ago, just after the Americans came, foreigners started to arrive in bulk, so now congestion is the norm. The embassies and offices built for them to work in, and the government offices and courtrooms refurbished for their protégés, are all located in the centre. To protect these so-called important buildings, long concrete barriers, watchtowers and checkpoints have been placed along this main road and its side roads, effectively boxing in the city centre. Policemen are stationed at the checkpoints to check IDs and ask questions. Ring of Steel is the official name of this security setup. Soon, we’ll probably be barred from driving to the centre altogether.
I struggled with the authenticity of the voices, too, particularly Merza’s, which just felt like a Muslim stereotype, and Alec’s, which was full of journalistic clichés. And the dialogue often felt clunky and too formal.
Jakob thrusts his thumb and forefinger into his eyes, pressing hard. “Even though there’s a lot of us here, the expat community is actually rather small. Even smaller when you are in the same profession.”
“Hard to believe the Finest was targeted,” Jakob says, wiping his brow. “This will affect expats pretty badly. We all shop here because it’s one of the prime places to get stuff from home. Any of us could have been inside.”
Given that The Finest Supermarket in Kabul was written by an expat (the author, who is Canadian, has previously lived in Afghanistan), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the story is told through an expat lens.
And while I know you should never review a book on what you think the book should have been about, I can’t help feeling this was a wasted opportunity to find out more about the Afghan people and life in Kabul outside of the expat bubble.
On the plus side, I did like the way the author draws the three characters together in unexpected ways, but on the whole, this story was far too simplistic for me. Reviewers on GoodReads see things a bit differently: The Finest Supermarket in Kabul has plenty of four- and five-star ratings. Well, it’d be boring if we all liked the same things, right?