Written by Tamim Ansary
Published by Numina Press
Review by Meredith Allard
“Let me take you across the miles and down through the years to a tiny village in Afghanistan, some hundred miles north of Kabul, in the year 1841…”
So begins the mesmerizing novel The Widow’s Husband by Tamim Ansary. For myself, before the U.S. brought its war on terror to Afghanistan I had never given much thought to the country, thinking of it as the question to a Jeopardy answer: This Middle Eastern country is central in the land of –stans, bordering Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Iran. I was first introduced to more recent Afghan history in Khaled Hosseini’s powerful novel The Kite Runner. And now, even more than when The Kite Runner was first published in 2003, Afghanistan is heavy on our minds. Afghanistan is not simply some sand-filled land in Far-Far-Away. It is a country rich in history and culture, a country that has often been the victim of invasion and conquer. In The Widow’s Husband, Ansary focuses on the 19th century British invasion of Afghanistan and its chaotic, unsettling effect upon the Afghan people.
There is a dual story here. First, as the beginning lines suggest, we are introduced to the people in the tiny village of Char Bagh. Ibrahim is the malik, the leader, of the village. He is deemed not fit to lead by the elders, partly because he is too young, partly because he is a scholar who prefers to spend his time contemplating poetry and religion. He is a man of yearning—yearning for a greater connection to God, and yearning for Khadija, his widowed sister-in-law. His wife, Soraya, is emotionally unstable and not the pillar of support that Khadija can be. When a vagabond begins living in the hills near the village, only Khadija and Ibrahim recognize him for what he is—a malang, a mystical holy man. Ibrahim’s devotion to the malang sends him on a journey from his isolated village to the city of Kabul.
The second story revolves around the British troops stationed in Afghanistan. They have installed a new king, a man who will be sympathetic to their cause, in other words, pliant. As the two stories intertwine, the novel becomes a page-turner as the plot twists left me guessing which way the story would go. How will Ibrahim deal with British interference in his remote village? Will the British walk away triumphant, or will the Afghans? The Widow’s Husband shows how easily different cultures can misunderstand each other and how easily those misunderstandings can turn to violence.
There are many strengths in this novel. Ansary switches between the voices of the Afghans and the British in a way where you can hear the cadence of each accent in the words on the page. The characters, particularly Ibrahim, Khadija, the malang, and Oxley, a British soldier, are fully realized. And Ibrahim is a well-developed protagonist. He is a case of contradictions, on the one hand devoutly pious, a man who would rather read poetry or his holy book than fight a neighboring village over necessary water. On the other hand, he is surprisingly indifferent towards his own wife while harboring love, and lust, for his widowed sister-in-law. There is a certain realism, a poetic correctness in the ending, even if it was not the ending I wished for.
While it is tempting to make comparisons between events in Afghanistan today and events in the story, The Widow’s Husband stands on its own as a vivid tale about a fascinating culture and the perils it has faced over time. If you are interested in 19th century Afghanistan history, in British invasions during the Empire years, or simply wish to read about love, yearning, and struggle in the face of adversity, you will enjoy The Widow’s Husband.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.