Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Hogarth, 2012
I avoid war novels. Until I find a really, really good one. In recent weeks, The Watch is one of those that qualified. I have a difficult time reading about human cruelty, and that is, after all, what war is about, in excess and in extreme. I make exceptions, however, when the writing is exceptional and the subject matter can teach me something I don't yet know and should.
Even as the war in Afghanistan has been going on for too many years, I realize that I don't really have a strong understanding of it—and honestly, I'm not sure this novel has changed that. Let's face it: war is beyond understanding. It's madness. But author Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya has captured something of the essence of every war and revealed it to us in this novel, including the human spirit that survives it and even overcomes something of the madness.
The Watch is the story of a Pashtun woman who has lost her legs during the war, approaching a U.S. Army base in Kandahar to demand the return of her brother's body. Weary from battle, the soldiers have no idea what to do. The woman, in part based on the myth of Antigone, positions herself in the desert outside the base and refuses to move. Maybe she's a terrorist, wired with a bomb the moment she is approached. Maybe she's lost her mind. Maybe she is in disguise, not a woman at all. The soldiers debate what to do, as the intensity of the situation escalates and reveals what war does to those on both sides of the battle.
After reading the book, I had the privilege of interviewing the author in the Spring 2013 issue of The Smoking Poet, and Roy-Bhattacharya spoke of the philosophy on which he built his novel, the ways in which he did research to paint a realistic scene without ever visiting Afghanistan himself, the role of women in war, and his feelings about passivity when encountering war. It makes for fascinating insight.
As a writer, though, it is the level of quality in writing that gets my attention most. Roy-Bhattacharya wields a skillful pen. His story drew me in instantly, his characterization brought these people alive to me, and his literary talent added beauty to what is the ugliest part of human nature—our lust to kill each other.
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya was educated in politics and philosophy at Presidency College, Calcutta, and the University of Pennsylvania. His novels The Gabriel Club and The Storyteller of Marrakesh have been published in fourteen languages. He lives in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.