With some books, it’s easy to recognise a theme, comment or purpose to a story. With others, the themes are more subtle and require a greater level of analysis or perception.
We are now beginning our descent by James Meek sits somewhere in between.
There are so many ideas, metaphors, observations and analogies in this novel, it’s hard to extract a single dominant theme. So it’s no surprise readers are taking away a myriad of different messages.
The story is told through the eyes of Adam Kellas, a British war correspondent who’d rather be a novelist, but whose literary efforts are not bringing in the kind of money and lifestyle he thinks he wants.
After September 11, he’s sent to Afghanistan to cover the Northern Alliance forces fighting the Taliban. There, he falls for Astrid, a moody and unpredictable American magazine writer. After sleeping together an Alliance outpost, they unwittingly play a part of an impromptu artillery attack which leaves them both traumatised.
Kellas returns to London, where he writes a “sell-out” novel about Europe going to war against the Americans. But he struggles to live at ease with his friends, insulated as they are from the realities of the world.
He’s also haunted by thoughts of Astrid, so when he receives a strange but short email demanding to see him, he jumps on a plane and heads straight to her – after a night in which he does irrevocable damage to some long standing friendships.
The story is told along three timelines, which the author seamlessly moves between (usually without warning): Kellas’ experiences in Afghanistan, his present journey from London to the east coast of the US, and the events of that fateful dinner party before his flight.
This is one of those occasions when the detail of story – particularly Kellas’ experiences and observations in Afghanistan – carry more weight when you know the author has first experience with what he’s writing about. Meek is a journalist, whose reports from Iraq about Guantanamo Bay won a number of British and international awards. In 2001 he reported for the Guardian from Afghanistan on the ware against the Taliban and the liberation of Kabul.
In this latest novel, he questions the US and its role in the Middle East, but tempers his criticism by recognising that “…America is no exception to the iron rule that every country, seen for the outside, seems to know itself, and that no country, seen from inside, ever does.”
But back to the themes readers and critics are finding in this well-written and highly readable novel. According to a few of the comments I’ve come across, We are now beginning our descent is:
- a criticism of war correspondents’ complicity in the conflicts they cover
- a post traumatic syndrome love story
- about the futile search for love and meaning in a world of pain and chaos
- a criticism of novelists who “sell-out” from writing important literary works to make big bucks
- a comment on the way the world's comfortable societies insulate themselves - politically, mentally and emotionally - from the world of the deprived
- exposes the lofty presumption of the West as it loses altitude and comes ignominiously to ground among the long-ignored and newly unstoppable hungers and angers of the Third World.
For me, it was the theme of connection – or lack of – between people, and people and places, that resonated the most.
But it was interesting to note the reactions of others, which probably says as much about each reader’s politics, state of mind and viewof the world, as it does about the author’s intentions with this story.