June Book of the Month: “The Watch” by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
At once captivating and heartbreaking, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel “The Watch” is a sad and beautiful exploration of the toll of war. The story takes place at a remote military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where an American team has just suffered a brutal nighttime attack. Both sides have racked up casualties and the fort, though still standing, is hurting. The following morning, a young woman, crippled and hidden beneath a burqa, appears to claim the body of her brother, one of the attackers and the last remaining member of her family. In fact, The Watch is a take on the Antigone myth, in which the girl’s brother dies outside the city gates and she is unable to bring him inside.
The situation becomes tense. The woman in the field is an unknown; the soldiers are as suspicious of her as they are sympathetic regarding her exposure to the elements. Everyone from the commanding officer to the translator has a different opinion, many of which overlap, although just as many differ as well. Each chapter takes on a new person’s perspective, beginning with the young woman herself but failing to establish her innocence before moving on to the first of the soldiers.
Roy-Bhattacharya approaches the scene as would a movie director, zooming in on details and angles that vary from chapter to chapter. Voices, tones, speech patterns, beliefs, suspicions, energies change with each subsequent narrator. This is a book that puts you on edge, that makes your heart hurt for the victims of war, as well as those fighting it and their families. Certainly, there are some stereotypical characters, like the sniper whose only desire is to kill, regardless of the morality of doing so.
The message is that no one escapes the effects of war–neither the officers, nor the soldiers, nor the civilians, nor the families waiting back home. This is all the more clear because there is no major battle, no meeting of the minds behind closed doors, no pivotal moment that distracts you from the human emotion laid bare on the pages. Readers of war novels may find this unusual, but the setup lends itself to a great story and time for in-depth character development. This is a moving read for anyone touched by war, either directly or as a spectator.
Amina Elahi is Divanee.com’s Managing Editor. Check out her blog, where she posts words and images that make her think.