Ventura Press, Australia, 2020
The Night Letters is Denise Leith’s second novel. She has also published two works of non-fiction, very much in the realm of her academic expertise in International Relations and Middle East politics.
She also draws on this, on extensive research and on the experiences of much overseas travel in the creation of this beautiful, sensitive novel set in Afghanistan, in particular in Kabul.
Young Australian doctor Sofia Raso moves to Afghanistan to take up a position in the practice of Dr Jabril in Shaahir Square, Kabul. Not long after arriving she takes up an opportunity to travel into a remote mountain village to work with UN doctor Daniel Abiteboul, with whom she has a brief and unresolved affair. The relationship is renewed after a fashion years later when he comes to Kabul, and this thread holds much of the plot together throughout the book.
However, it is not the central interest of the novel, though love in many guises is explored – friends, spouses, parents, children, lovers. The rich cast of characters in Shaahir Square, the intrigue over the so-called ‘night letters’ and Sofia’s work with Afghan women and children are its anchors.
A picture is beautifully painted of the complexities we face in trying to understand a different culture, the challenge of embracing its differences, both frustrating and charming; there is also the strikingly beautiful landscape of both mountains and desert which is such a determinant of people’s everyday life conditions. It’s a harsh magnificence.
Sofia is a woman of great passion and integrity and this plays out not only in the way she practises medicine – giving time to the spirit and not just the body of her patients – a practice which also includes travelling to places outside Kabul to train local women in midwifery. She is very much about endowing skills for self-determination to the women with whom she works.
She comes across the abhorrent practice of bacha bazi (a form of paedophilia) and is unable to adhere to the principles she first adopts of keeping a low profile and letting the Afghans work out their own problems.
One of the many strengths of this finely-crafted novel is the portrayal of the development of the myriad relationships between the Australian and the Afghan community in which she lives and where she feels she has found home. The author contrasts this with the unsatisfactory nature of Sofia’s own family relationships in Australia.
There is a delicacy of touch here from the writer and with her Sofia. She learns on the job in Shaahir Square, applying what she has learnt about the cultural expectations to her interactions, but also using her own sensitivity, her love for these people and the knowledge that beneath the skin we all need the same things. She develops a maturity beyond her years, but rather pleasingly keeps some of her ‘hothead’ passion for fighting for a worthy cause.
The politics of power, in the end, are a tough opponent, and the recognition -again – that there are problems only the Afghans can tackle – is a major theme. As outsiders, and always destined to be so, agencies like MSF and the UN will only ever brush the surface of such war-torn, poverty ridden places.
The present dangers of Afghanistan contrasted with the society pre-war, pre-Taliban, pre-American times are an impediment to the advance of the women with whom Sofia identifies. However, Sofia, whilst acknowledging the limitations of her own place in a land not her own, also holds hope for the future through the strong women she meets who are working towards better health, education and political representation.
There was so much richness in this novel: layers of well-built characters with their foibles and strengths; beautiful passages of prose in homage to the landscape and the people; a story that held the reader to the end; food for thought for the outsider looking in and above all empathy and non-judgmental affection from the author for her subject.
Thank you to Ventura for a review copy and DMCPR for facilitating my interview with Denise Leith.