The Long Road from Kandahar by Sara MacDonald is an interesting and engaging read, tracing the lives of an English boy and a Pakistani boy and their families.
Finn is English, the son of a British Army Major and a Finnish mother. Raza is the son of an elderly, retired Taliban fighter, now a simple farmer in Waziristan, North-West Pakistan. Finn’s family live in their Army quarters in Germany, but he attends a boarding school in Cornwall. Raza lives with his elderly father in a simple house in the mountainous Swat Valley where he tends a goat herd and struggles to grow enough food during a drought.
Knowing that Raza’s two elder brothers will soon try take him for the Taliban, Raza’s father has secretly arranged for Raza to live with distant, wealthy relatives in London. After a short and unhappy stay in London, Raza wins a scholarship to the same boarding school in Cornwall that Finn attends where they are roommates and soon become close friends. They spend much of their non-school time at Finn’s grandparents’ beach house.
Finn’s father, Ben, is posted to Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, about a thousand kilometres from Raza’s home village in Pakistan. Finn’s mother, Hanna, is desperately unhappy at the prospect of returning alone to Germany and moves back to her home in Finland, beginning what Finn believes to be his parents’ eventual separation/divorce. Raza and his new parents make an emergency return trip to Pakistan because his elderly father is hospitalised. Initially, Raza is determined to stay to care for his father but is soon convinced to return to England after the threat of being kidnapped/recruited into the Taliban by his older brothers becomes evident. While Raza is in Pakistan, Finn’s father is seriously injured during a patrol and is evacuated back to England. Ben’s injuries include an amputated leg and an abdominal wound. Hanna flies to England but it’s clear the marriage is over, causing Finn even more grief. Raza returns and joins the extended family as it comes to terms with Ben’s injuries. There is a vivid paragraph in which Raza describes similar limb amputation injuries among Pakistani children and the reader can’t help to make the obvious comparison between the massive resources available to foreign troops compared to what limited medical treatment the local children have available.
This was a difficult story to read. It was principally about the eventual breaking apart of Finn’s family, but it could have been a more interesting story of the destruction of poor Pakistani families and their culture by the war between the Taliban and western powers that overflows into Waziristan. The story, like the real situation in Afghanistan, was tipped heavily towards the story of Finn, his English life and his English family’s response to Army life and Ben’s injury.
The book is set in both Cornwall and the northwest tribal area of the Swat Valley and Islamabad/Rawalpindi. These are vividly colourful and vital places and I thought the writing didn’t do either setting justice. The dialogue, almost all of which is between friends and family members, didn’t flow as naturally as it would in real life. I enjoyed reading the story and was thoroughly engaged with the characters, but I thought the focus of the story was off-centre. The story seemed predominantly about Finn, his relationship with his family, Ben’s injuries and the eventual break up of the marriage and family, when I thought a more compelling story was that of Raza leaving his mountains, travelling to bustling, dusty, edgy Peshawar, on to Rawalpindi and then to an utterly new and unexpected life in England.