By Jill McGivering
It would be easy to dismiss McGivering’s debut novel as ‘me-too lit’. She and her publishers spotted the success of The Kite Runner and, driven by McGivering’s personal experiences as a frontline war correspondent, hatched a plan to produce another book about Afghanistan for Western readers. This approach may indeed be what happened. But the product nevertheless surpasses any cynical design the audience may wish to infer.
McGivering has written a gripping and provocative novel. The Last Kestrel delves beneath the headlines beamed daily from Afghanistan in order to educate and inform its readers, not so much about the conflict but the people who inhabit it. McGivering’s approach is rather straightforward and even predictable: a jaded but still ethical British journalist drives the plot along through her investigations into a murder and army corruption. With this vehicle, McGivering can reveal something she never could in her BBC reports: the ‘truths’ that remain unreported for their lack of ‘evidence’. This is McGivering at her most subtle and her most provocative. The frustration of her protagonist at not being able to report truthfully and fairly what actually happens receives a mere mention, but it underpins the conflicted nature of every other character. Even the journalist, fuelled by the truth, cannot be truthful.
That said, the primary narrative will be enough to drive most readers through this gripping book. McGivering lays down more twists and turns than a Taliban fighter lays landmines. But never does her story take on the epic, swashbuckling tones of a Hollywood action adventure. It remains fixed to its subjects: the people, not the politics, nor the military strategies. In this way, McGivering shows us the realities experienced by Afghans caught up in this war. Tender mother-and-son relationships, brotherhoods and marriages all come under McGivering’s gaze – and she portrays them with what feels to this reader as great authenticity.