Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an interesting but disappointing book, set in a part of South Asia not normally given much time in English-language fiction. It follows three brothers in Mir Ali, a small town in Afghanistan-bordering Waziristan, over the course of an Eid morning. It not only follows their activities on this one morning, but delves into their pasts: one brother was naively involved in informing on his former neighbours while studying in the US; another lost his son in a Taliban attack on a hospital, driving his wife mad; and the other is involved in tumultuous student politics which, like in most of South Asia, is not the rather insular and tame activity that western-based readers might assume. The account of the separatist activities in the Waziristan region is the most interesting part of the novel. The characters feel alienated from the Pakistani nation, and the heavy-handedness of the army (a South Asian issue encountered again and again) leads them always closer to affinity with their Afghan neighbours.
Bhutto’s prose is earnest in a manner that is distinctly Pakistani–or at least, distinct to Pakistani writing in English. It is reminiscent, to some degree, of the writing of her compatriots Uzma Aslam Khan and Nadeem Aslam, though with less of the ornamental flourishes that make those other writers beautiful, and connected to Urdu literary traditions. In fact, Bhutto’s writing is verging on flat at times, not elaborating on descriptions of people and place necessary to evoke strong images of a place that, realistically, most of her readers will have little first-hand knowledge of.
Following the lives of three brothers, and the women in their lives, as it does, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon packs a lot into a relatively short book (230 pages). The jumping between characters, places and times is not disconcerting so much as alienating: it takes a long time for the strands to come together, and when they do, the result is quite underwhelming. Non-linear, circuitous or fragmented narrative structures often seem to be used when a story lacks some other crucial aspects, such as character development or subtle explorations of shades of grey (Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed is a case in point). Unfortunately, this is also the case in The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.
I like fiction with a strong political edge. It would be impossible to enjoy South Asian, and especially Pakistani, fiction without an inclination towards this type of writing. However, I think Fatima Bhutto is in a difficult position. Granddaughter of executed Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and niece of assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Fatima has a lot of insight into the machinations of Pakistani politics. But her writing can come across as a political tract, not an attractive feature for fiction. Fiction with strong political messages is best when these messages are subtle, weaving amongst nuanced character development, plot, setting… While an author cannot be solely blamed/credited for the titles of their works, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is the first indication that this novel is a blatant critique of the concept of the Pakistani nation. Such critiques should be encouraged, but I wonder whether the novel is the right genre for Bhutto. But, this is a debut novel from a young writer (she is only 31), so it will be interesting to see whether she can hone her enormous knowledge, insights and passion into more nuanced fiction in the future.