What Changes Everything by Masha Hamilton
2013 by Unbridled Books, 272 pages
(I received a galley from the publisher--and a mere three years later gave it a read!)
This is the third novel by Masha Hamilton that I've read and without intending to, I always feel a lot wiser about the world after each book. This is true with What Changes Everything too. While the biggest action-oriented plot point, a kidnapping, takes place in Afghanistan, an equal amount of activity--though maybe more internalized or quiet--occurs across the United States as well.
A portion of plot is necessary here--that main action referenced above is the kidnapping of an American civilian, Todd, in Afghanistan. Todd, a Relief Worker, has left his fairly new wife, Clarissa, behind in Brooklyn while he's off helping the world. There are other regularly appearing characters in the novel that all find a way to bounce off of this kidnapping as well. Clarissa will meet a tagger, Danil, while walking the neighborhood at night to escape those trying to help her after Todd is kidnapped. Danil's mother, Stela, owns a bookstore in Cleveland, has been estranged from Danil since not long after her other son, Petr, died earlier in Afghanistan. Danil's graffiti is an obsessive way of telling his younger brother's story. Stela deals with the death of one son and the estrangement of the other through letter writing--to Danil, to politicians, to Noam Chomsky. There is also Mandy, the mother of a wounded soldier, who is also a nurse, who ends up going to Afghanistan to try to better understand what her son is going through after his return to the States.
Most of these folks live ordinary lives, but their connections to Afghanistan lead to extraordinary events. And Afghanistan itself feels like a character in that as much as I grew to understand various human characters through my reading, I felt I was growing to understand aspects about the country as well.
Todd is kidnapped. Clarissa is put in the position of not only worrying about her husband, but forced to make decisions on how the government approaches looking for him (sit back and negotiate or send in troops). Danil goes out in the middle of the nights in less than overly desirable neighborhoods to spray paint messages that all have to do with his brother, Petr's, death in Afghanistan. Clarissa and Danil meet late one night as she walks to get away from it all. The two bond over what has happened to others in Afghanistan. Stela has completely lost one son to the war, and though she writes him countless letters, Danil refuses to open them, let alone read them, as he and his mother are estranged. Mandy does indeed go over to Afghanistan and is set up to visit local hospitals and work with nurses, bring them supplies, etc. She is based out of the same compound that Todd is/was prior to his kidnapping. Mandy's activities actually seem a little less extraordinary when compared to the others and this may be due to her seeming to disappear from the novel for a very long stretch in the middle--post-kidnapping of Todd.
Much more of the novel at that point is spent between scenes with Todd and his kidnappers (which are not very action filled, even when they're moving him from one location to another), or with Clarissa and her dealings, be they internal, with her family, with the government, or with Danil. And through it all Stela's voice pops in with letters that while very serious in nature, bring some comic relief to the larger, maybe one would consider more depressing, issues.
The structure of the novel also has sections following letters--letters from Dr. Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, the real life former President of Afghanistan. The letters are to his wife and daughters from his residence in the United Nations headquarters in Kabul after the Taliban had taken control of the country. He refused to leave his post, staying until his death (hung in the streets, after being drug through them and quite possibly having been castrated prior to that). The letters are similar to Stela's in that they are filled with loss--for him the loss of his family, of his position, of his country. They are dissimilar in that they really do not provide much humor. What those sections also provide is a character named Amin who is a servant to the President. It is my understanding that this Amin is the same that is involved with Todd and heavily involved in the negotiations to get Todd released.
Where the action aspect of the novel seems muted, it fits very well with the stories Hamilton is telling. She hits on loss, on identity, and the fate of people, none of which need incredible amounts of physical action. The novel focuses on each person, who they are, how they are and how they interact with others and the effects those interactions have. Todd's kidnapping has an effect on Clarissa, leading to her meeting Danil, and that meeting helps to nudge him to talk to his mom. And the fact that much of this comes to us through the interior thoughts of the individuals makes it seem more like events that would have happened and not events forced by the author. It's a great read.