I was given Caravans by James A Michener for Christmas by my mother, and have only just got round to reading it after a very busy few months indeed. It was written in 1963 but is set in Afghanistan in 1946 and is a fascinating insight into what the country was like at the time, from someone who had had first hand experience of it.
It’s a novel with two characters at its core. The first is Ellen Jaspar a young American woman who has rebelled against her small town upbringing in Dorset, Pennsylvania by marrying an Afghan and journeying overland from England in the middle of the Second World War to join him as his second wife. Her parents are, perhaps understandably, not thrilled by this turn of events, and become increasingly worried as she subsequently goes off the radar completely. With the assistance of their senator they demand that something is done and that is where the young Mark Miller, a young Jewish man posted to the American embassy in Kabul, comes in.
Miller is sent on an adventure across the deserts of Afghanistan to find first her husband and then Ellen herself, and along the way encounters death in the desert, strange abandoned cities, atrocities left behind by Genghis Khan and finally a caravan of the nomadic Kochi people. Without giving too much away he ends up experiencing love and loss for the first time, witnesses a gathering of nomadic tribes from all across Central Asia, and has to question his beliefs as well as face up to a Nazi on the run from justice.
This is a fascinating novel and the passion the writer has for the country comes off every page, despite him describing an often barren and forbidding place. It’s more fascinating still given the last 16 years of conflict in Afghanistan. It makes a change to be thinking differently about a place that often only features in the news due to war and terrorism. It made me curious to know how much of what was described was real, and I was amazed to find the abandoned cities he described on Wikipedia, and also found myself looking up pictures of the Hindu Kush so vividly described in the book.
I would never have picked up this novel, but it is recommended reading for anyone feeling like something a bit different to take on holiday this summer.