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Terror and tenderness in ‘What Changes Everything’

Masha Hamilton’s fiction evinces an in-depth understanding of fraught global politics that she presumably acquired as a foreign correspondent. But she also demonstrates the empathy and imagination of a born novelist. Building on such previous achievements as 31 Hours (one of the Washington Post’s notable books of 2009), Hamilton continues to explore new territories in her fine new novel, What Changes Everything.

The plot is driven by the abduction of Todd Barbery, an American aid worker in Afghanistan, and the tense maneuvers for his release. Yet this drama is framed by a series of letters written years earlier by deposed Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai from his refuge in a U.N. compound. Composed as the Taliban approach Kabul, Najibullah’s loving missives to his daughters in India remind us of Afghanistan’s political and cultural complexities, often imperfectly grasped by foreigners.

Najibullah’s fall from power also provides motivation for Amin, who served him as a teenager and now works with Todd in Kabul. Amin’s belief that he failed Najibullah in 1996 spurs his determination to secure Todd’s release, even though Amin’s wife warns him, “Speaking out there on behalf of an American: this is madness.” Brilliantly nuanced scenes with the elders of a village that may harbor Todd’s captors show the risks Amin is taking. During one argument, the minefields surrounding him are evident when an embittered local declares, “You are already getting money from foreigners. Why shouldn’t we?”

It’s good that the kidnappers apparently want only money, an FBI agent tells Todd’s wife, Clarissa, in Brooklyn. But he still presses her for permission to attempt a military rescue if negotiations fail. Clarissa would rather trust Amin’s knowledge of the Afghan “connections (that) are more powerful than our laws.” Meanwhile, as she waits, Clarissa forms an unlikely friendship with a graffiti artist whose brother was killed in Afghanistan.

The Americans are more elaborately interconnected than the Afghans with whom Amin parleys, and a nurse who flies to Kabul to find her son seems to serve primarily as the author’s conduit for a crucial piece of information. Yet Hamilton so sensitively and persuasively enters the troubled thoughts of each individual that most readers will forgive an occasional whiff of contrivance.

Hamilton’s warmth toward her characters leads us to hope they will be granted reconciliation and renewal, and in some cases they are. But her elegantly wrought prose conveys terror as well as tenderness, and she cannot be false to Afghanistan’s history by suggesting peace will come easily or to everyone. She can only show us, with compassion and insight, people trying to behave honorably in terrible circumstances.

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