Fatima Bhutto is done talking about politics. Done being asked to explain. Always to explain. She’s seated at this table, in a cramped room in Penguin India’s office, copies of her just published first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, in a teetering pile in front of her, to talk about books and writing and will not be deflected. “Everybody wants to know the same two things about Pakistan,” she says, trying and failing not to roll her eyes, “they want to know it every week and they want to know it in 600 words and they don’t listen. I feel like a broken record.” Or, she adds, switching to a soupy, yoga teacher voice, “They say, ‘Oh, let’s just focus on the positive.’ Politics is so difficult, I don’t want to listen anymore.” With fiction, though, “when you tell people a story, their attention span, their imagination, expands. It allows you to say more”.

Small wonder that Fatima, though her mother (which is how she refers to Ghinwa, Murtaza’s second wife and technically Fatima’s stepmother) is a politician, continues to resist the dirty business of politics. She has the writer’s instinctive mistrust of authority and its certainties. “The novel allows you space to think,” Fatima says. “If you go into bookstores now, there are rows and rows of ‘explain-it-all’ political books that don’t get you anywhere because they don’t allow for you to have any compassion, or empathy, or curiosity. They just tell you what they think you need to know. Pakistan, like everything else, is a hundred little things.” It is, of course, the novelist’s trade to worry about those little things. The novelist’s trade to, as Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, range “very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things”, to alight on “small things and show that perhaps they are not small after all”.

Readers in the UK and the United States turn to Pakistani novelists writing in English — and they are turning in ever greater numbers — not just because they are cultural emissaries, translators of sorts, but because a novelist challenges the reader’s capacity to feel empathy.

Not that empathy for a place as vilified as the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the people in it, comes easy. “There’s a sort of inherent racism when it comes to Pakistan because [foreigners'] views and ideas of the country are already so tarnished,” Fatima says. “Just to speak to you they have to go through all kinds of cobwebs in their mind to understand how you could be from such a place. ‘But you’re like me. You sound normal.’ At least, that was my experience when it came to non-fiction, I don’t know if that leap is still difficult to make when you’re speaking fiction. Well, I guess I’ll find out.”

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set in that fraught border area, in the fictionalised town of Mir Ali. There is, as Fatima points out, a Mir Ali in North Waziristan, but hers is unrelated, a composite of the places she travelled through with her parents and named after her nine-year-old brother, adopted by her stepmother Ghinwa when he was barely a couple of weeks old. The novel is set on a single, tumultuous day (well, three hours) in the lives of three brothers. It is cinematic in its sweep and its pacing. A fast, suspenseful, commercial thriller with expansive themes — freedom, love, duty, loyalty, family, ambition, grief.

Although the novel is ‘about’ three brothers, the characters that emerge as complex and powerful are the women, including a sinister American in a blue trouser-suit. Fatima says this surprised her. “When I started, in my mind, this was a story about three brothers and somehow these two women took it over. I think they reflect, at least for me, Pakistani women, who are imagined to be peripheral, secondary, separated and kept in the shadows. But actually they are immense forces. If Pakistan is a resilient country, and it is to have survived all it has, women are the exemplars of that resilience.” It is a rousing sentiment and indicative of Fatima’s good intentions for the novel.

But, ultimately, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (a clangorous, too-heavy title, despite its important thematic implications) is undone by its urgency, its very political relevance. Fatima wrote this, she says, in the interstices between research for an altogether different book, one about Karachi, until a year in after which she stopped pretending she wanted to do anything other than write her novel. Now that she has got it out of her system, perhaps she’ll have the writerly confidence not to reach for significance, for meaning, but to take pleasure in the beauty and idiosyncrasy of the individual voice. After all, it is the liberating prerogative of writers to be irrelevant. To be unimportant.

Courtesy Tehelka.