The Last Kestrel

Jill McGivering
Harper Collins; €17.15

AN AWARD-winning war correspondent, Ellen Thomas, is in Afghanistan. Jalil, her Afghan translator and friend, has met his death and Ellen is determined to find out why.

She joins British troops in a troubled area and gets caught up in a bombing. A house collapses, several children perish, but a woman, Hasina, survives.

There’s a strained atmosphere in the camp. The soldiers, along with the new Afghan translator, distrust the villagers, but Ellen strikes up an alliance with Hasina. Together they visit Hasina’s dying son. Meanwhile, the respect between the commanding officer Mac and Ellen starts to turn to attraction.

All this is wonderfully conveyed by Jill McGivering who has visited Afghanistan on several occasions as a correspondent for the BBC. The novel, inevitably, has drawn comparisons with The Kite Runner, but there are few similarities. Although McGivering tells Hasina’s story too, this is, essentially, a westerner’s tale. It shows the horror, and the complexities of fighting a war in a country whose culture you neither identify with nor understand.

Above all, this book is an exploration of the morality of wartime reporting. Is it okay to file a story a day with lots of colour but little underlying substance, like John from the Times? Ellen clearly doesn’t think so. She derides him for calling himself a reporter, yet never interviewing anyone from the Afghan side.

Ellen’s style is altogether different. She digs deeply into the Afghan psyche, but by doing so her involvement becomes more personal than professional. Moreover, she puts herself and others in untold danger in the process. Is she creating unnecessary havoc in the interests of her story?

Ellen isn’t the only innocent drawn into the moral complexities of the conflict. We see families split and relatives betrayed for reasons we only fully understand as this empathetic novel draws to a close. As a final shot, we get a glimpse of redemption.


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