I am always wary of reviewing books by people I know, because of the difficulty of maintaining objectivity. But this book is special. When a book has recommendations on its blurb from John Humphreys, Melvyn Bragg, William Boyd and AL Kennedy, you know that you have something unusual in your hands. And this is a first novel that simply will not disappoint.
The Peter Hanington that I came to know was a young anti-apartheid activist of huge commitment, making his considerable skills available to benefit the cause of freedom in South Africa. From there, he went to work for BBC Radio eventually becoming a producer on the Today Programme. And he uses that knowledge as the basis for a thriller about two Today Programme journalists, William Carver and Patrick Reid, working to uncover why an Afghan politician, Fazil Jabar, was murdered in a bomb explosion.
It is a carefully constructed story, leading the reader through the murky depths of international involvement in Afghanistan, the horrors of the war in that country, and the sheer unprincipled cynicism of the promotion of UK PLC I do not think that there are any heroes in this story, certainly not of the Jack Reacher kind. But there are undoubtedly people that you can sympathise with, and care about. There is William Carver, a veteran journalist, whose reputation has been besmirched by letting himself be conned over the invasion of Iraq, and who has become a hard-drinking curmudgeon, difficult to work with. There is Patrick Reid, a young journalist determined to prove himself in his first overseas assignment. There is Karim Mumtaz, an Afghan translator who aspires to a career in journalism. There is Noor, who wishes to go to Harvard, and Lucia Mariscal, trapped in a failing marriage to Rob, a BBC editor. And there is Baba who runs a wedding business in Kabul, which is where the story starts, when a bomb goes off in a tailor’s shop across the road.
These are all people that the reader can understand. They have ordinary aspirations. They want to do well at their job, to improve their lives or even to do something quite noble – to tell the world the truth, and to help make a difference. The Jack Reacher characters on the other hand are actually very unpleasant – amoral and murderous and, in one case, over-confident and not very efficient. This is also a fundamental part of the story. It gives nothing away to say that, if Richard Roydon reads at all, which is unlikely, he sees himself as a James Bond figure, not a George Smiley, and he does not have the talent for either role. Roydon is the kind of man that Craig Williamson, the apartheid spy chief, would have recruited. He is the kind of man who would have had no difficulty in the company of Eugene de Kock, the apartheid mass killer. To call him unpleasant is like saying Genghis Khan was warlike.
One of the underlying themes of the book is the sheer resilience and courage of people trying to live ordinary lives in the disaster that has been Afghanistan since the Russian invasion of 1979. And when I say disaster, I do not mean that its previous history was actually quiet and peaceful. One of the points that General Doushki, the story’s Afghan Warlord, makes is that Afghanistan has been invaded throughout its history – “Alexander the Great, the Byzantines, Mongol Khans, Queen Victoria’s brave,stupid soldiers. All of them were here…” [NB I think he means the Macedonians, not the Byzantines, but the point is generally right.] And as Doushki adds, there is more killing to come. And it in these circumstances that Noor, Mrs Ansari, Baba, Karim and Mr. Savi, the tailor, are trying to live ordinary lives. I, because I know him, am not in the least surprised that Peter Hanington should recognise one of the great problems of history – that people have to live through it, which is why it is best not to live in interesting times. There are many historians who fail to recognise this simple truth.
Hanington is an author who has compassion, sensitivity and humanity. Those qualities shine through this book. These are the qualities that make you want to find out what happens next. These are the qualities which will touch you to the core of your being.
You really will not want to put this book down.