Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

A review of this newly released novel

The Watch is an intensely emotional portrayal of war that will get underneath your skin. This recent release by Indian-born New York-based author Joydeep Bhattacharya has made me think more than any other book I’ve read recently. The interesting thing about this intense novel is how it grew on me more the further I got into it, slowly turning me from sceptic to convert.

The tension that carries the reader through The Watch is set up in the first chapter, which is told through the eyes of a young Afghani girl come to bury her brother’s body. The Antigone in this tale, this determined girl, whose brother has recently died during an attack on a remote US military outpost, finds herself sitting outside the army base at a stalemate with the soldiers inside. She claims she just wants to give her brother a proper burial, but they have orders to send the body to the capital to be paraded by the government as a propaganda tool. Where this story really gets interesting is when you realise that neither you the reader, nor the soldiers in the base know whether the girl is a terrorist sent as a suicide bomber, or just a grieving sister.

This importance of this first chapter is not immediately obvious, and I have to say, I found it hard to get into, and even the second chapter was heavy going for someone who isn’t used to reading about combat. I’m not generally a fan of military books, and it took me a while to get past the harsh but no doubt realistic talk of the US troops. But each chapter is narrated by a different character, and the third chapter is narrated by the more sympathetic team medic. From this point the stories start to tie together, the perspectives of each character interweaves interestingly. We start to get an insight into the different characters, why they’re there, their fears and histories, basically what brought them to this painfully harsh posting in the desert, surrounded by hostile insurgents and citizens alike.

In the meantime, the landscape sets a stark background for the drama as it unfolds, an alien land of dust storms and looming mountains. The presence of this unknown woman, and the strength of her conviction affects the soldiers in a way even the death of their friends in the fire-fight didn’t. It makes them question the very nature of the war they’re fighting, and we see this through the way even hardened soldiers start to question the decisions of their superiors when it comes to their treatment of the girl. Joydeep uses flash backs and dream sequences to let us look into the psyche of these men, and what we see is often as much a challenge to the state of US culture and the socio-economic concerns facing young men back home as it is of the war they are fighting.

For me, the impact of this book was heightened by the fact I finished it while half-watching the ANZAC day parade last week. The parallels between watching past servicemen and reading about the inner turmoil of soldiers in the present day made me pause. I think that because this war in Afghanistan has divided people so thoroughly it’s particularly interesting to read a book that doesn't glamorise or validate war, but does give an insight into the motivations of the men who have been sent to fight it. There can be no doubt that the extreme physical and emotional conditions of war affect people in a dramatic way. This book allowed me to contemplate this side of war in a way that I wouldn’t normally, seeing the soldiers as men with different motivations and backgrounds, just as diverse as those who have fought in every war. I recommend this novel wholeheartedly as serious food for thought.

 Lex Hirst

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