Thinking Aloud: “What Changes Everything”

Apr. 18, 2014 by Darius 

I recently finished What Changes Everything by Masha Hamilton.  The novel brings together the story threads of a myriad of characters, past and present, affected by the war in Afghanistan.  

What Changes Everything parallels the stories of two very different men.  Todd, an American aid worker, is kidnapped in Kabul.  (This is not really a plot spoiler as the book jacket tells you as much.)  His story is implicitly compared with that of Najibullah, president of Afghanistan in the years after the Soviet withdrawal until civil war and the Taliban takeover.  Najibullah spent years trapped in a UN compound in Kabul, unable to leave officially and unwilling to swallow his pride as leader of his country to escape surreptitiously.  In the end, Najibullah was tortured and killed when the Taliban took Kabul.  (This is also not a plot spoiler as it’s historical fact.)  Masha Hamilton uses Najibullah’s story to demonstrate that in the end, the Americans and other foreigners will leave Afghanistan and return to their lives.  The Afghans don’t have the luxury of being able to leave when it is expedient.  It’s their home, and they have nowhere to return to.

Hamilton also drives home the point in What Changes Everything that while the war in Afghanistan has ripped apart many American lives, Afghans have suffered far more.  When an American nurse whose son lost his legs fighting in Afghanistan visits a Kabul hospital, the Afghan head of the hospital points to an Afghan girl similarly maimed and demonstrates the contrast between the two victims.  While the American soldier will be able to lead something resembling a normal life, the hospital chief says, both bitterly and matter-of-factly, of the girl, “We will be able to get her prosthetics, inshallah.  If the aid does not dry up.  But she will never marry.  She will not go to school.  Her family will feel shamed by her.  She will not have ongoing medical care.  Real recovery for her is not possible.” For how many Afghans is that the case?  No one knows; no one even started keeping records on civilian injuries until 2007.

Hamilton is a former journalist who covered Afghanistan for four years, and her day job is (or was when the book was published) director of communications at the US Embassy in Kabul.  She knows Afghanistan, at least on the level an outsider can, and has seen the tangled and sometimes mangled lives that have intersected there.  What Changes Everything is a poignant interweaving of stories of loss, grief, and recovery, with Afghanistan as their pivot point.

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