Friday, April 17, 2009

Fidali's Way

I have been immersed in Fidali’s Way, the debut novel of George Mastras, for almost a week because of the strong sense of place that Mastras gives his story of an American inadvertently caught up in the present-day conflict between Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists. Mastras very successfully places a human face on those involved in a tragic struggle (on both sides) that is little more than headline news to most of the rest of the world.

Nick Sunder, an attorney who became disillusioned by the dark impact of some of his courtroom victories, has been backpacking in Central Asia for a while before he joins up with a beautiful French girl and her British boyfriend. When the young woman is found murdered, Nick is arrested and tortured by the Pakistani police who want him to confess to the murder. Nick makes a narrow escape from the police, implicating himself in another crime in the process, and makes a run for India.

On the run and near death from exposure, Nick chances upon two of his former cellmates who, despite knowing nothing about Nick, offer to lead him to the relative safety of Indian-occupied Kashmir - a danger-filled walk of several days he barely survives.

But Nick Sunder is only part of the story. In alternating sections of the book, Mastras tells of a very special woman who grew up in the very village toward which Nick is headed and of the little boy who grew up there to become a ruthless muhajideen leader fighting the Indian army for possession of his part of Kashmir. Aysha, even as a child, was considered to be the village healer, and she grew up to become one of the few female medical doctors in her part of the world. Her fiancé, Kazim went a different way, choosing radical jihad over marriage to the beautiful Aysha, a decision both would continue to regret.

Their paths were destined to cross, and what happens when Nick, Aysha, and Kazim come together is at the heart of this beautiful and brutal story. The climax of the book, when personal grudges, religious fanaticism and rabid nationalism clash at the clinic run by Aysha to the benefit of Indians and Pakistanis, alike, illustrates the ultimate futility and folly of religious warfare in a way that readers will long remember.

George Mastras is a good storyteller and his knowledge of the remote part of the world in which he sets Fidali’s Way is impressive. His characters are complex enough that their motivations, decisions and regrets are believable, and readers will find themselves thinking about Nick, Aysha, Kazim, and Nick’s two guides long after they have finished the book. I did, however, find the book’s final resolution (during which Nick discusses the French girl’s murder with her British boyfriend) to be rushed, leaving me with the sense that it was tacked on simply as an attempt to tie up any of the story’s remaining loose ends. The unlikelihood of the two meeting under the circumstances described, reminded me that I was reading fiction just when I wanted to forget that.

Overall, this is a very fine thriller, especially for an author’s first time out of the gate.

Rated at: 4.0

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