Have you ever missed your stop on public transit because of a book?

House of Anansi, 2016

House of Anansi, 2016

Into the Sun is so gripping, from the start, that I travelled four stops past my own stop, before I even realized that I had missed it. (Then, I was so surprised, even disbelieving that I’d travelled so far beyond my destination, that I missed the next one too.)

The novel’s opening is indeed adrenalin-soaked, with an attack on a public building, which has welcomed the patronage of Westerners in the war-torn country of Aghanistan. Certainly there is a safe-room – and for good reason – but just how safe is a safe-room?

This sudden and heightened immersion reflects the experiences of newcomers to Kabul, immediately engaged in a life more brilliant, more engaging.

“All expats shared more than we liked to admit: a sense of addiction, an uncertainty about what we’d do if we went home, and a feeling of being awakened – our senses jolted into activity each time we went outside, perceiving every detail in the street. We felt close to the world’s brilliant core – not shielded, not squinting at screens.”

A couple dozen pages into the story, however, and the adrenalin fades. The compelling pace eases and readers are left to reconfigure, a novel of dering-do and bravado makes room for another kind of narrative.

Is this a story of adventure, or a contemplative work on the broader question of survival? Perhaps this is just what it’s like for new arrivals to Aghanistan, who might be struck initially by the violence and the urgency of life under these circumstances, then be stunned into something quieter, still alert but in a strange sort of limbo.

“Just by setting foot in Afghanistan, we have the authority we crave back home. Our journey is a story of the greatest human strength: leaving one’s domain and crossing the frontier into the territory of the other.”

Into the Sun is told from a number of perspectives, all newcomers to Kabal with one exception, a young resident whose only experience of life has been in wartime conditions. “Afghanistan stirs things up, and it takes them a while to figure out who they are here.”

One characteristic which all the narrators share is a sense of fractured identity, whether because they are pressed by matters of loyalty/betrayal, or because they carry a legacy of rootlessness (often due to family fractures, whether more or less visible to outsiders).

How does one define oneself when living a life of extremes?

“A man, Demetrie said, has got to live by his standards, even if it means seeming crazy. If you don’t, you end up hating yourself. People just do the same things and say the same things, and forget they said them yesterday. I woke up one day and was tired of listening to all that.”

The setting is described in a matter-of-fact tone. There is no hint of exoticism or romanticism: this is a difficult environment under the best of circumstances, but almost impossible in a state of siege. One coated with dust which has been determined to contain 60% fecal matter, partly because the contents of septic  tanks have been dumped nearby, have dried and blown back, and partly because of the open sewers in the environment.

“The mountains held in the emissions of traffic, generators, and construction, the demolition and mixing of concrete, as well as the smoke from wood, diesel, and kerosene. Also lacing the dust was the pulverized remains of the thousands of mortars that had rained down during the civil war, the depleted uranium bullets and armor-piercing rounds, the streets and buildings incinerated by American bombs.”

Nonetheless, there are poetic bursts. The land is as beautiful as it is dirty. “Outside his gate, the earth, cut by motorcycle tracks, looked like gills.” Even the philosophizing is described beautifully: “Once we have lived through violence, are we drawn back to it, like insects wandering into a world of artificial lights, tiny proximate suns, our ancient sense of navigation confounded, so that we proceed to circles until we annihilate ourselves?”

The language used figuratively usually embodies a sense of conflict, however, adding to the novel’s quiet tension. There is no mistaking that this is a place and time characterized by struggle, though not uniquely here and now, some native and some imported. “Even as a boy [in the United States], aiming a weapon had been automatic, as if every act of violence were inherited – a gesture repeated across centuries. Destroying his own life had felt like the only way out of it.”

This sense of timelessness plays out within and across characters’ experiences. “He’d noticed how – when he stopped moving forward and stayed too long in one place, when the future’s gravity lost its purchase – the past took hold. It was the sort of thing that would never have crossed his mind before his discharge.”

The past has a peculiar power for several characters, including a Japanese journalist, who becomes obsessed with unearthing the motivation surrounding a single act of violence. How the past takes hold in the present is of concern, but also the historical patterns of engagement: “…Americans were masters of not only nostalgia but also forgetting. The country they loved was a mirage from the past, a stylized memory bereft of history itself.”

Deni Ellis Béchard has proven himself interested in the interplay between past and present in previous works as well, including Cures for Hunger, which considers his childhood and coming-of-age in a family where his father was largely absent and had a history of committing robberies. His first novel, Vandal Love, also considers matters of identity and longing, amidst a struggle to establish roots in some unwelcoming territories across an expanse of time.

The overarching concern is not that different in Into the Sun: “What would a person not do for a future?”