When college senior Parveen Shams discovers a memoir by humanitarian Gideon Crane that has become a bible for American engagement in Afghanistan, she is inspired. She travels to a remote village in the land of her birth to join the work of his charitable foundation. When she arrives, however, Crane's maternity clinic, while grandly equipped, is mostly unstaffed, and Crane's memoir appears to be littered with mistakes, or outright fabrications.
Waldman does an admirable job of keeping multiple balls in the air. Her characters are fully realized individuals, as morally complex as the choices facing them ... The author is as deft at painting the physical landscape of this mountainous region as she is in drawing the interior landscape of her characters—and at showing where these collide with international and local politics ... A Door in the Earth is especially pointed in exposing the dangers of a 'white savior' mentality ... One of the pleasures of the novel is discovering Muslim women characters whose voices are varied and witty, and who are, in the best sense, ordinary ... Waldman is that rare novelist who writes from both the head and heart, combining high moral seriousness with moments of irony and humor. In A Door in the Earth, she has created a novel as moving as it is provocative.
Set in Afghanistan in mid-2009, it’s a troubling story of the moral ambiguity at the heart of the war and a painful depiction of the limits of idealism when it confronts the realities of a distant country’s culture, history and politics ... Waldman subtly reveals how our long engagement in Afghanistan hasn’t equipped us with wisdom that’s equal to our power ... In addition to the complex ethical questions it raises, what makes A Door in the Earth so rewarding is the care Waldman takes to make sure that the lives of the novel’s Afghani characters—especially those of the women and their roles in this deeply patriarchal society—are portrayed with the same honesty and empathy as Parveen’s ... Through Parveen, Amy Waldman offers a sadly realistic assessment of our predicament ... a bitter message, but one that’s more than justified, it seems, by the story that’s told in this devastating novel.
The book should be recognized as having some serious flaws ... Why doesn’t Parveen have a few more years and a graduate degree under her belt before heading off to one of the world’s most complex countries because of the inspiration of a book which proves to be totally fraudulent? How is it that in a country as male-dominated, conservative, and gender-segregated as Afghanistan does a young woman, and a foreigner at that, garner such respect and inclusion among the men, Afghan and American? How is her Dari sufficiently excellent that she can think, speak and translate fluidly? Why do the women of the household accept and come to love her when she has usurped them with her access to the powerbrokers and freedom of movement so absolutely denied to them? ... To her credit, Waldman works her way to more dialogue and less third-party narration as the story progresses. She also offers an array of stunning events as the denouement begins, born of poor judgement, western perspectives, and military and political interventions by egotists who don’t care to try understanding Afghanistan’s culture ... To the great relief of readers, finally Parveen gets it (after being rejected by her hosts), redeeming the important, and ultimately sensitive story that Waldman has written. It would have been even more gripping without its literary flaws.