“I thought she was sleeping.” This simple opening sentence to Rukhshana Khan’s latest young adult novel, Wanting Mor, encapsulates the bewilderment of Jameela, the book’s narrator, at the death of her beloved Mor, her mother. From then on, it is by holding on to her memories of her mother and all that she has taught her, that Jameela is able to emerge intact at the end of this sometimes harrowing story.
Set in war-torn Afghanistan, post-Taliban and just after the American invasion in 2001, Wanting Mor brings a ravaged landscape to life and portrays the effects of war on civilians caught up in conflict, especially on children. Jameela’s life is turned further upside-down when her father decides to sell everything they own, apart from the clothes they are standing up in, and move to Kabul – and then marries again. Her step-mother is archetypal but even so, nothing prepares the reader for what she causes to happen: although ironically, and certainly unintentionally, it opens up a world of possibilities for Jameela: she learns to read and write; she finds friendship; and she has an operation to remove a cleft palate.
It is only gradually that the reader becomes aware that Jameela has a cleft palate – it has not really impacted on her life before coming to Kabul; and most of the time it is covered by her porani or shawl. Indeed, Jameela has to do more soul-searching to find her true self after she has the operation than she ever found necessary beforehand – an interesting avenue in the book’s narrative.
At times, Jameela is angered by the behaviour of some of the adults around her and at the slackness in religious observance of some of the other girls who become so central to her life. Her own commitment to her religion provides fascinating insight into the daily life of a devout Muslim girl and her self-awareness and self-analysis add spice to the narrative. By the end of the story, Jameela engineers a chain of events which, as well as bringing the narrative to an exciting climax for the reader, allows her to break free from her past and face her future with optimism.
The strength of Khan’s writing lies in her skill at bringing her characters to life in all their complexities: and this is particularly notable when considering that Jameela, whose words tell the story, only gradually learns that you can’t simply pigeon-hole people as good or bad. Wanting Mor is a compelling story which will transport readers into the world of an intelligent and engagingly honest heroine. It is also a beautiful testimony to the real girl, Sameela, around whose heart-breaking one-paragraph mention in a report from Afghanistan’s Department of Orphanages Khan has woven her tale.