What Changes Everything
- Masha Hamilton
- Unbridled Books
- 262 pp.
- Reviewed by Maria Kontak
- July 2, 2013
A kidnapping in Afghanistan weaves together the lives of disparate characters in this novel of loss, family, identity and fate.
Journalist-turned-novelist Masha Hamilton has produced a new novel in her trademark vein, with harrowing crisis, conflict and dilemma, and deep psychological probing of self. Her characters — men, women and their grownup children — roam a terrain well traveled by the author herself. It may stretch from Ohio to Brooklyn, but Afghanistan remains the glue when the ordinary lives of Mandy, Clarissa, Todd, Stela and Danil take an extraordinary turn. As a secondary character named Jack puts it: “We’ve got people all over the world, including some based in hairy places, and everyone ignores what that means until they can’t anymore.”
Thus, the novel treats of loss – loss of children, loss of siblings, loss of what was before Afghanistan kicked into their lives. But the central plot is less about the after-shadow of past loss and more about future loss. At the heart of Hamilton’s yarn is the capture and imprisonment of American relief aid worker Todd by an undefined enemy in Afghanistan. Todd is the husband of Clarissa, who has already weathered family loss. In addition to creating suspense – will Todd survive or not – this central plot serves as a catalyst for the stories of the other characters. With the exception of Mandy, who disappears early only to reappear almost 200 pages later, their dramas weave in and out in a manner that heightens overall suspense.
But the novel is not a thriller in the classic sense. Physical action is generally muted. Todd’s captivity is appropriately minimized as the action switches to Clarissa’s internal world. From Brooklyn, where she is surrounded by conflicting advice and pressures, she must choose between a U.S. military rescue attempt and negotiations with the anonymous captors. Not that a sense of adventure is absent, however. During a harrowing night of soul-searching, Clarrisa literally bumps into an equally riveting secondary plot, involving Stela and her estranged son, Danil. The drama of mother and son is also rooted in the Afghanistan conflict.
Danil is a graffiti artist whose obsessive art, a tribute to his younger brother killed in Afghanistan, takes place in dark locales and in the dead of the night. In that absence of light Danil searches for a way out of the darkness, just as does Clarissa. For both, grief, loss, anger and fear line have darkened their canvases and the choices they make.
Just as the reader begins to feel weary of the gloom, Danil’s mother, Stela, enters. Stela, who owns a secondhand bookstore in Cleveland endearingly named Bulgakov’s Bookshelf, is regal in her absurdity — equal parts comic and grave. She writes letters, not just to her estranged son Danil but to politicians, art critics and, invoking their common Russian roots, even Noam Chomsky. She, too, searches for a way out, a means of understanding the literal loss of one son and the figurative loss of another. Her way of doing this, however, is more ingenuous, more affecting and less self-centered than that of the other characters. In her letters, Stela shares the soul of Verdi’s hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto so that the reader doesn’t know whether to weep or laugh.
The author’s use of letters works brilliantly, not just as a means of creating tension and reiterating the themes of the novel but to link to national history as well. Stela is not the sole letter writer. The novel and each subsequent part of it open with letters penned by the last president of Afghanistan before the country’s conflict and dissolution, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai. His letters, like Stela’s, are rooted in loss, family, identity and fate. Unlike Stela’s, they are lyrical and steeped in Afghani culture and history. Afghanistan, we come to understand, is the glue in this book.
In addition to the letters, Hamilton cleverly weaves fiction into reality through the introduction of crossover characters. Principal among these is the unofficial negotiator for Todd during his captivity, Amin, who is also presumably the fictional servant cited in Ahmadzai’s letters.
Though neatly structured, the novel can be confusing at times because of the many individual dramas that pop in and out, some of which are only thinly connected to the main plot line. The often exasperating self-involvement of the characters is balanced by the charming letters, the lyricism and even the poetry epigraphs that introduce each part of the novel. One epigraph in particular summarizes the novel’s story. It comes from the pen of eminent Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer: “What is near./ The battlefield within us/ Where we, the Bones of the Dead, fight to become living.” But the final line belongs to an Afghani proverb as complex and enigmatic as is the human psyche, Hamilton seemingly wants to remind us: “Destiny is a saddled ass; he goes where you lead him.”
Maria Kontak holds a
Ph.D. in Russian literature from the University of Michigan, has a career in
international business and is active in the writing community. She has
published short stories and is working on a novel.