Prince of Afghanistan by Louis Nowra
Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781743314821
(Age: Teens) Highly recommended. Louis Nowra's first venture into teenage literature, Into that forest, was a highly literate, compelling and confronting exploration of the instinctive bonds between Mankind and Nature. It was not generally appreciated to the extent it deserved. This, his second novel, is a book of a different cover - though the writing is no less assured. For this story Nowra has used the age-old and perennially popular theme of the surviving hero making his way home, with little more than a talisman. The setting is wilderness Afghanistan, evoked by pre-chapter illustrations (mainly stock sourced) that illuminate the hostile solitude of the landscape. The hero is a young Australian soldier, Mark, not much older than the implied readership of the book. The talisman is Prince, a trained war-dog, who has survived the catastrophic aftermath of a successful rescue mission, in which his handler is killed. Prince is injured, and temporarily deafened, so securing a bond with him is more difficult; but Mark is determined to do so, to save Prince, and himself, by forging a way through the unforgiving environment.
The pace of the writing is exciting and the author never loses control. The adrenalin rush of the first chapter remains throughout as Mark must avoid capture by the Taliban and certain death. Enter the intriguing character of Ghulam, whose ambivalence and cruelty is a summation of this conflict over its long history; he doesn't stay long in the story but his appearance is memorable. In time, hunger and their acquired injuries become dangers to the pair. The reader gets to catch a breath at the times when Mark reflects, profoundly, on the life he has left behind, his damaged father, his own flawed youth unbecoming of a hero; yet he longs to return.
This is a story for younger teenagers to gain a realistic view of war; some language, drug references and violence - all in context - place it beyond the reach of younger readers. The survival strategies Nowra gives to his character are convincing and the product of detailed research. It is also a book for older teenagers who are classed as reluctant readers, particularly boys closer to Mark's age. The action is vivid; the characterisation, even with Prince, is authentic; and the message is that war is not worthy of being glorified. Highly recommended.