by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
What figure haunts more than a father? The men who nurtured or abandoned their children, who marked families with their presence or their absence. And the father figures, the stepfathers and mentors who stepped in to reshape families; what happens when they fulfill, neglect, or betray their roles as nurturing parents? What of their subtler and greater crimes? This issue, Booked and Printed examines the transgressions of those pivotal parents, and the coping mechanisms, destinies, and climactic choices of the children who endure their fathers’ wrongs.
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In the Afghanistan of the 1970s, as evoked by Jasmine Aimaq’s The Opium Prince, the population stands divided, torn between the declarative promises of one populist political system and the pious claims of religious leaders. Amidst the occasional protests, fiery radio and TV declarations, and arguments between friends and neighbors, life has its everyday rhythms. Women and men go to their jobs, a middle class thrives, international cars commute, and the low-income serve and clean up after the wealthy.
Daniel Sajadi, the son of a white American mother and an Afghan father, is the new, embattled head of a US agency that aims to eradicate Afghanistan’s prolific opium fields. He bears an intimate understanding of the country from his upbringing as the privileged son of a businessman; his last name, Sajadi, commands recognition and respect from other Afghan citizens. The wealth his father accumulated precedes him, even as his figure remains distant in Daniel’s memory. Sajadi spends most of the book haunted; in the novel’s merciless opening pages, he accidentally kills a young nomad girl. Telaya, a member of the vulnerable Kochi tribe, runs in front of his car. An enigmatic, slender man, Taj Maleki, witnesses the accident, notes Daniel’s famous surname, and sees several, ruthless opportunities in Sajadi’s guilt.
Through the grim proceedings of Sajadi’s coping with Maleki’s increasing demands, Jasmine Aimaq draws the precarious, soon-to-be lost vibrancy of Afghanistan before its notorious collapse. The Kabul of the 1970s is cosmopolitan and promising; Sajadi’s friendships include women doctors, a young activist reporter, Americans living a comfortable expat existence, dignified imams, and well-off salespeople. Sajadi feels convinced of his own, virtuous mission to destroy poppy fields for the good of Afghanistan’s future. Maleki challenges him at every turn. A tragic, mysterious backstory threaded throughout the novel draws out a surprising sympathy for Maleki’s ambitions. And Sajadi’s discovery of the legacies he unwittingly carries from his own father will shake the foundations of his soul.
In The Opium Prince, Aimaq does the important, skillful work of drawing sensitive distinctions between populations within Afghanistan, a country still too often portrayed as a mere staging ground for war and notorious villains. Her intricate plot construction builds a sharp argument against the folly of arrogant interventions in a nation, all the while providing readers the old-fashioned pleasures of a thriller—villains turned allies and vice versa, old crimes revealed within new transgressions, and a nail-biting, climactic hot pursuit.
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In The Stepdaughter, Debbie Howells brings us a mother and a daughter increasingly terrorized by their husband and father, Andrew, a respected doctor. In their small, well-to-do English village, Elise, a flight attendant, and Niamh, her daughter, cope in their own ways with the tension Andrew brings; he begins with neglect in the form of affairs, and increases his torments gradually. When Niamh’s best friend, Hollie, goes missing and is later found dead, Nicki, a police investigator recovering from her own past life with an abusive husband, begins surveying the village. As she circles Andrew, his behavior descends into increasing emotional and physical abuses toward Elise.
With alternating points of view—the most poignant and heartbreaking being Niamh’s—Howell draws the claustrophobic world of a household coping with the everyday tensions of an abusive man, with his shifting moods and mercurial violence. Masking the unearned shame of a torturous marriage interferes with Elise’s clarity of judgment; Niamh feels protective of her own mother in ways that harm her own well-being.
The private pain of the family feel most compelling in the novel; other elements of the plot risk excess. A child sex exploitation ring seems to be operating in a wealthy man’s mansion, implicating other men in the village; one of Hollie’s parents also dies; a surprise second child, Dylan, is mentioned and revealed as pivotal.
But the climactic discovery of Hollie’s demise is truly heartbreaking, in light of domestic abuse’s long-lasting effects on a young person’s psyche. And Nicki’s shoe-leather police work, in cornering Andrew, is pleasing to follow; if only all real-life investigations of domestic abuse could be so thorough.
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Natasha Trethewey worked for thirty years on her memoir, Memorial Drive. It’s a loving portrait of her mother Gwendolyn, a meditation on the Confederate racism inherent in America’s legacies, a reflection on the nature of memory, and a chilling examination of the abusive stepfather who eventually chose to murder Gwendolyn. Each chapter is brief, the entire book relatively slender, but each page is weighted with intimate histories, years of the poet’s efforts bringing readers an immersive, endlessly haunting work.
At the heart of the book is Gwendolyn, a brilliant social worker who had the courage to love Natasha’s father, a white poet from Nova Scotia, at a time when doing so brought hostile attention from white racists. Gwendolyn sought independence after their divorce, and remarried a veteran of the Vietnam war.
Tretheway’s evocation of her mother summons a courageous and intelligent individual for readers, all the while showing the resourcefulness Gwendolyn attempted as a means of survival against that second husband. The nightmare of the man’s violent choices deepens and swerves, insidious and unbearable, trapping Gwendolyn in positions her context, as a Black American woman, would not protect her from. Toward the end of the book, a long transcript reveals Gwendolyn’s voice: the final negotiations she attempted against her ex-husband’s overwhelming, sanity-straining entitlement toward her life. The evidence of his lethal intentions is all the more shocking with the police’s ultimate neglect of Gwendolyn; in the hours before the murderer arrives, the officer guarding Gwendolyn’s home leaves his post.
Memorial Drive is a sacred text, one that deserves care and revisiting. It testifies to unspeakable domestic violence, all the while resurrecting the person lost to that violence. Trethewey reminds us of the humanity, the intimate memory, and the love that persist long after a beloved mother dies. The final sentence leaves us with a terrible sense of loss, and an enduring sense of connection: “For several miles we’d drive like that: so close we seemed conjoined, and I could feel her heart beating against me as if I had not one, but two.”