In Marciano’s brilliant novel, Afghanistan is as exotic, chaotic and frightening as any Westerner might imagine, filled with random violence, the greed of opportunists and a civilization entrenched in a primitive landscape. Little of the rest of the world has intruded, save war and its predictable consequences. Two women are dropped into Kabul in search of a sensational story, increasing numbers of local women self-immolating rather than marry decades-older husbands and endure miserable lives where they will be enslaved and beaten.
Westerners have long been outraged and insatiably curious about the plight of Afghan women, a cause célèbre for those who seek to right the wrongs of those without voices. An aggressive journalist for the London Observer, Imogen Glass, is paired with reluctant photojournalist Maria Galante, who has retreated into a more predictable career as a food photographer after an emotionally challenging year. Glass is larger than life, determined to wrest this tragic tale from the reluctant women; Galante’s photographs are critical to the success of the piece.
Resisting the demands of this dangerous place, Maria allows Glass to direct their activities, still shell-shocked from a week of intense survival training. The chaos in the country is overwhelming, journalists, mercenaries, NGO workers, opportunists of every stripe, most with their eyes fixed on the goal of a quick profit and escape before the entire country implodes.
Kabul is shattered by daily bombings, warring factions, soldiers, and a threatening Taliban. Every man bears a gun like a natural appendage. Their “fixer”, Hanif, is the key to safety, guiding the women from Kabul to the country where imminent danger lurks at every turn, he the bridge between disparate languages and the one who interfaces with the men who fiercely protect their wives, sisters and daughters.
It soon becomes clear that photographing the Afghan women carries the taint of dishonor; Maria cannot capture the strangeness and beauty of the females driven to such extreme acts to avoid their marriages. While Imo pushes and seduces, Galante observes, her interior landscape slowly awakening to unexpected insights, releasing the emotional shackles she has so long accepted.
It is impossible to capture the power of this novel: the juxtaposition of cultures, the human detritus of an ongoing war, the desperate condition of battered cities compared with the staggering beauty of a country that time forgot. Imo is relentless in her pursuit of the story, callous and self-serving. The miracle happens to Maria, temporarily cast into a place both frightening and exhilarating, passionate and volatile - and unfathomable to those who dissect and plunder.
Often as invisible to the men at the local hotel as are the Afghan village women, Maria finds herself at a crossroads, forced to rely on instinct and the aid of the invaluable Hanif, her priorities challenged by the unpredictability of her situation. Thanks to Marciano’s insightful prose, one cannot read this novel and remain indifferent. The End of Manners seethes with the reality of war, its most helpless citizens, the haunting Afghan women and the journalist with her eye on the next story: “I had found the gift hidden in the fold of my own fear.” Courageous and painful, not to be missed.