The plot of Masha Hamilton’s novel What Changes Everything contains many threads, the most important being the kidnapping of Todd Barbery, the head of a refugee relief organization in Afghanistan, by Afghan opportunists seeking to barter his life with whoever might pay the most for it. Todd’s wife Clarissa, a New York City college professor, refuses requests by the US government intermediaries to use force to rescue Todd and instead relies on Todd’s Afghan assistant Amin to obtain her husband’s relief. As Clarissa waits, she meets Danil, a Brooklyn graffiti artist whose brother has been killed in a friendly-fire incident while serving as a soldier in Afghanistan that the military tries to efface. Danil commiserates with Clarissa and advises her to retain faith in Amin, who eventually succeeds in effecting Todd’s release through his cultural and negotiating savvy.
In telling this story What Changes Everything begins to complicate understanding of what war in Afghanistan and novels about war in Afghanistan entail. Hamilton, who has served in Afghanistan as a cultural advisor to the US high command, eschews portraits of troops and battle and instead offers a compelling story about how war ensnares a wide range of characters other than those in uniform. These include Afghan noncombatants, American aid officials, and American family members touched by the war’s destruction. Besides Todd, Clarissa, Amin, and Danil, major characters include Danil’s mother Stela, who writes grief-stricken letters to politicians and celebrities seeking understanding of her son’s death and others to Danil that Danil refuses to even open, and Mandy, the mother of a young soldier injured in Afghanistan, who flies to Kabul in a Quixotic effort to lend her training as a nurse to war-stricken Afghans. Though the novel is short, several minor characters also figure so prominently that they might well be considered major: Todd’s daughter Ruby disagrees with her stepmother Clarissa’s decision to trust Amin, and Mandy encounters first a mercenary operator who knew her son well and then Zashfelt, a mysterious Afghan woman implicated first in Todd’s capture and then his release.
As if that all weren’t enough, Hamilton also includes imaginary letters written by Afghanistan’s last pre-Taliban president, Mohammad Najibullah, to his daughters in the days just prior to his murder at the hands of the Taliban in 1996. The imagined letters serve the plot in that they tell us that Amin as a young man had missed a chance to save Najibullah’s life, which now makes him determined to save Todd’s. But they also remind us of Afghanistan’s history, good and bad, pre-2001. Najibullah was not a saint—he was head of Afghanistan’s secret police under the Russians—but he comes across beautifully in the letters. In contrast to the spasmodic pleas for help written by Stela and the cluttered and confused thoughts of the other American characters, Najibullah’s letters portray a man who is absolutely composed, intelligent, cultured, full of affection for his daughters, gifted with words, and proud of his achievements as head of a country he loves.
Hamilton keeps all of this together very well. Clarissa’s skeptical resistance to military action pays off and in so doing dramatizes What Changes Everything’s most trenchant theme: the US military, addicted to violence and incapable of subtlety, would do well to pay more attention to what vastly more experienced and wiser Afghans try to tell them. I didn’t like the novel’s early scenes that show Mandy arriving on her solo mission to Kabul without sponsorship or much preparation at all, but subsequent events confirm that Hamilton intends to portray her as a bit of a self-important fool. Todd Barbery is even more of a self-important fool, and he has only himself to blame for the trouble he gets into. Hamilton’s point seems to be that Americans, even or especially those eager to help Afghanistan, tend to be both oblivious and arrogant. Among many other problems, they are bad listeners and poor communicators, qualities at which Afghans such as Amin excel, their skills honed by endless struggle for survival. But Amin is not perfect, either, and the novel’s story of trial and growth is his, too, as we see him desperately trying to reap the lessons wrought by past failure to successfully negotiate Todd’s release.
Early in the book a scene in which Stela’s friend Yvette admonishes her, “You’ll do what you want in the end. But don’t do anything before tomorrow, Stela, promise me that much. We need to talk more, after you’ve found your tongue again.” Stela’s not ready to listen to Yvette, to Stela’s detriment, but later she will recognize the truth of her friend’s advice that communication is essential. Her plight is that of all What Changes Everything’s characters, and tips Hamilton’s hand. Obtaining freedom from murderous kidnappers is one thing, but learning to listen and trust, while slowing down enough to nourish family-and-friendship is what really matters, to answer the question implied by the novel’s title, when it comes to escaping the prison-house of self-absorption. And in contrast to stories about Afghanistan that portray American special operations daring-do or castigate a seemingly incorrigibly corrupt and backward Afghan society, What Changes Everything asks us to think that it is not like that at all.
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything. Unbridled Books, 2013.