Saturday, May 10, 2008

Unfocused story is a bumpy ride

James Meek divides his time between being an award-winning war reporter for the Guardian and pursuing a career as a writer of fiction. While his first novel, The People's Act of Love, was a deservedly acclaimed dip into historical fiction, his latest work does not quite match up to the high standards he has set for himself.

The protagonist is, like Meek, a British war correspondent. Adam Kellas exudes all the world-weariness that comes with being an old-timer of his profession. The story begins just before the 9/11 attacks, when Kellas is planning a novel with a plot identical to the real life tragedy (he is, menacingly, put off by his idea being snatched).

Shift to Kabul, where Kellas is deployed by a newspaper to file daily dispatches on the American invasion of Afghanistan. There he meets Astrid, an American feature writer feted for her sensitive portrayals of people caught up in conflicts. Lust and, seemingly, love grow, until a tragedy involving the Taliban and the Northern Alliance sets back the relationship.

The trouble with We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is the author's lack of focus. We never really know if this is meant to be a story about love developing between two journalists covering a war (an exciting territory for any writer of fiction) or about the self-destructive outpourings of a man burdened with guilt. After flying from one continent to another in search of happiness, Kellas' landing in rural Virginia in search of Astrid stretches one's suspension of disbelief beyond measure.

Too many strands compete for attention. There is a wholly unnecessary subplot about Bastian, Astrid's companion in Virginia, who once taught a creative writing program to young CIA recruits.

This is a pity since Meek is clearly a gifted writer — his first novel and, indeed, even this one in parts are ravishing. If only he had worked on the plot and tightened the edges, this book would have been a meaningful addition to the glorious fiction of war journalism.

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