A senior at Berkeley with no real sense of what should come next, Parveen Shams seems lost in the wake of her mother’s recent death and the drift of young adulthood, until she discovers the best-selling memoir of an American doctor named Gideon Crane.
It’s his urgent, emotionally gripping account of working to improve women’s health in post-9/11 Afghanistan that offers not just a bridge to the distant birthplace she left behind years ago, but the chance to find real humanitarian purpose — or so she believes as Amy Waldman’s thoughtfully cautionary second novel A Door in the Earth opens.
A favorite professor (brown, female, fervently antiestablishment) tries to caution Parveen that Crane (white, male, TED Talk- and Davos-approved) may not be the man to hang her immediate future on. All she sees, though, is the chance to redeem a country that “if anything since Al Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers… had been the stuff of her nightmares” as a young dark-skinned girl who wanted nothing more than to assimilate.
But the warm glow of good deeds quickly meets cold reality when she reaches the remote Afghan village his book portrayed so movingly, and realizes that Crane’s clinic is essentially unstaffed — and the locals are, at best, nonplussed by her presence. She’s not a doctor, a social worker, or even an anthropologist; what did she expect she could offer them other than the promise of some informal note-taking, and the amusement of watching a Westerner bed down with unwashed goats and toddlers?
Waldman, a former South Asia bureau chief for the New York Times, brings inborn knowledge to her storytelling (see her outstanding 2011 debut, The Submission), and she writes about the clash of cultures and ideals here with clean-lined, eye-level empathy. Though Parveen stays credulous far longer than she should, Door still manages to make the political feel personal in a way that only the finest reporting — or the best kind of fiction — can. B+