A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman
Published by Little Brown and Company
Publication date: August 27, 2019
Genres: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction, Literary
Parveen is like most young women her age—graduating college, but not sure what she wants to do with her degree in medical anthropology. Until she reads a memoir, written by a man who goes to Afghanistan and after a traumatic incident that left a woman dead from giving birth, founds and funds a women’s health center in a small isolated village. Parveen is Afghan-American and Gideon Crane’s story captures her imagination and her desire to better understand her birth country. She reaches out to Crane’s foundation, gets their blessing to study the clinic and the impact it’s made on the women of the area, and even to stay with the family of the woman who inspired Crane to build the clinic. This is where Amy Waldman’s new novel, A Door in the Earth, begins.
Almost immediately, Parveen’s idealism and literal belief in Crane’s memoir is challenged. Now of the people she meets, from the Afghan man who helped Crane get the clinic built to the local elders to Fereshta’s husband, Waheed, are as described. The clinic is a marvel—new, clean, stocked with the latest technology to facilitate safe pregnancies and births, but electricity is an iffy situation in the small village and the only staff allowed to see women must a be a woman, which means one female doctor drives hours from Kabul once a week to see any female patient who shows up. Parveen is left spending days hanging around Waheed and his family of two wives and nine children. The help they need she is incapable of giving as she’s never worked on a farm in her life. That, plus her Western views and attitudes, make her an uncomfortable, useless presence.
I loved Waldman’s debut, The Submission, but A Door in the Earth fell flat and fell short. The premise is a compelling one—an Afghan-American young woman goes back to her birthplace to learn more about her culture and to help in the clinic. In this aspect, Waldman has lasered in on a hot topic—the American need to feel good about invading countries by later creating half-assed projects with little or no understanding of the underlying culture or its needs. This is exacerbated in the novel when American military shows up to build a road from the village to a larger city. I didn’t read any interviews with Waldman about the book, but there is also a strong sense of corrupted philanthropy. I was reminded of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea—a book I and almost everyone I knew read and was enthralled by. Later, there were questions as to how much of it was real and what happened after he left.
Political and cultural overtones aside, A Door in the Earth confused me. Mainly because of Parveen. I thought the novel was meant to be about one young woman’s return to her birthplace and the accompanying loss of her ideals about her homeland, her adopted country and her heroes. Instead, early on Parveen thinks
This wasn’t the reception she’d expected. She knew she was lucky to have been raised as an American…But in return, she had chosen—chosen!—to come back, to give back. She had assumed that this generosity—her sacrifice—would be, if not celebrated, at least welcomed.
What sacrifice?! She’s visiting to do research, not moving there.
Then there are her feelings about Waheed’s family:
Her conversations felt earthbound, transactional, and she despaired of the family ever truly knowing her.
I don’t know how to process this. It comes across as juvenile and woefully out of touch. These people are starving. Is she there to do research and try and improve these women’s lives or is she looking for new friends?
Maybe Waldman’s choices in portraying Parveen are meant to be reflective of what it’s like being a 21-year-old, but she is exasperating. The novel reads with all the contradicting emotions and intermittent flat affect of a stereotypical millennial but none of what you’d expect from someone striving to learn. At times she is woefully ignorant of even the most basic understanding of consequences and at others she knows why military vehicles can’t navigate sandy terrain.
I went into A Door in the Earth expecting a nuanced, serious novel but, try as I might I was never able to get into the novel’s rhythm. Parts of it do convey the realities of life in a country that has been at war for decades, but others feel tone deaf. I finished this novel, but was not sure what I was supposed to think or feel.