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.
...a story about America’s endless war in Afghanistan that layers moving storytelling onto penetrating reportage ... the book is more teeming panoply than intimate portrait. Waldman is particularly gifted at giving tangible reality to ethical dilemmas, so the reader shares Parveen’s bemused sense that there are no correct choices. Waldman is less skilled — perhaps because less interested — at creating three-dimensional characters. The most vibrant is Parveen herself, but Waldman situates her narrative perspective neither quite within Parveen nor at an ironic remove, so that even she never becomes fully alive. Nevertheless, it’s easy to overlook these flaws because the book’s moral questions feel so urgent. Few contemporary authors have shown so expertly that well-intentioned intervention can be the most dangerous kind of all ... A Door in the Earth makes a persuasive case for the novel as a powerful source of insight into our moral limitations. In an age when we’re tempted by Google and social media to believe we know more than we do, that insight is perhaps more valuable than ever.