Chance encounters that change lives forever (Manhattan, 1991; Afghanistan, 2012): Blue Hours is a stirring, admirable tale about the sacrifices we make for love of country and someone beloved.
Daphne Kalotay is a gifted writer in control of how much she wants to let us know, or not. Mysteries drive an entangled plot involving several characters we meet in Manhattan 1991 – Mim, Kyra, and Roy – and twenty-one years later, when they find themselves, willingly or not, dangerously mixed up in Afghanistan after 9/11.
Told by Mim, the protagonist, first as reflections of an experimental, coming-of-age time when she came to Manhattan fresh out of college. Then followed by an intense, modern-day war story in places “it is simply too dangerous” to be, “even for the FBI.”
“The heart is a mysterious thing,” Mim says, to explain how confused hers was, how torn it still is. Haunting NYC memories come flooding back when she receives an out-of-the-blue call from Roy decades later saying Kyra has gone missing, somewhere in eastern Afghanistan.
Mim and Roy have been estranged from Kyra all these years, but they both cared deeply about her. So much so they jump into something they’re unprepared for. Mim particularly as she painted herself as an anxious, fearful, struggling-to-belong young woman. As we learn bits and pieces about her new, contented, fairly isolated world, we see she still harbors fears. For someone who also “hates traveling,” it’s a monumental feat of courage and loyalty to accompany Roy to Afghanistan to search for missing Kyra.
Despite years and anxieties that can distort reality, Mim comes across as a reliable narrator. She always wanted to be a writer, so she speaks to us in prose that’s well-crafted to deliver intrigue, suspense, and non-preachy, important messages.
Besides the central mystery of what happened to Kyra, we must first figure out what happened between Mim and Kyra in NYC to cut their ties?
Some background about the two women: They met on an Amtrak train going from New England to Manhattan “when you could move to the city without a job or a plan, just some unreasonable dream, and survive.” Kalotay is skilled at evoking the city in the early nineties when it was gritty, not like it is today. “That city,” Mim says, “doesn’t exist anymore. Just as the girl I was no longer exists.”
Mim arrived yearning to erase “parts of my life.” Though a lonely soul, she came with a college friend, Adrienne, she rooms with. Compared to Mim’s writerly ambitions in the center of the publishing world, Adrienne was already on her way to seeing her movie-star dreams come true, armed with playacting offers in the Entertainment Capital of the World. They quickly learned even in a rent-controlled “walk-up” in Lower Manhattan, near the Bowery, Chinatown, and Little Italy, the rents were still too high if they wanted to eat.
Needing more roommates to share expenses, Kyra became the third – Kyra who had money to feed the homeless on their doorstep and the city streets, hinting at her dramatic turnaround later. Eventually, they took in two more roommates, one whose presence is acutely felt, whose background is another mystery for a while: Carl from Ohio with his buzz-cut, a “big duffel bag slumped in the corner,” and a noticeable “tremor in his fingers.” These too are revealing details, though we don’t know it until Mim becomes privy to his nightmares.
Roy was not a roommate, rather Kyra’s best friend growing up in Rhode Island. Both came from well-to-do families, and are strikingly attractive. Kyra is the one everyone loves, whereas Mim never felt loved. She envied them for how easy their lives were, how easy it was for Kyra to decline admission to Oxford University to be a dancer.
Kyra is the center of attention, while Mim received none. A victim of her mother’s premature death, her womanizing father who didn’t care about her, nor have money to pretend he cared.
Roy’s youthful feelings for Kyra have grown; Mim’s newfound friendship seems odd as Kyra is everything she’s not, though she’s also dazzled by her. The three often hung out together, and then abruptly stopped. Why?
The fifth roommate, an unnamed medical student, is essentially invisible. Adrienne mostly too as it didn’t take her long to land a role in a daytime soap opera. When she shows up in the powerful ending we didn’t expect, we cheer for her performance, how Kalotay brings her back in.
Jack, like Carl, is a Manhattan character absent in the later years, because he fulfilled his purpose: to add some physical pleasure into Mim’s loveless, out-of-place life among peers she felt were on the “brink of something magnificent,” except her. (Her degree amounted to a boring sales job in a clothing store.) In the years of her evolution, she realizes plenty of people hide their inner demons.
Kalotay unwinds her complicated characters’ stories and emotional pain at a time when America is suffering. Pointedly, she uses her characters to tell a highly polarized, disillusioned nation to pay attention to our nation’s foreign policies. To think about what we want our country to be, which means thinking about the damages inflicted on our citizens and others caught up in endless wars. Messaging that’s easier to swallow fictionally.
Jack, also rich, is the “son of diplomats” and refugees. Refugees and the impoverished are at the heart of Kyra’s disappearance, having left her cushioned life to work with NGO’s in troubled spots around the globe – African countries, Central American, The Philippines, Afghanistan, where Mim and Roy dare go.
Roy’s wealth enables the hiring of drivers who know the remote, treacherous Afghan lands, checkpoints, languages, culture, and village clans. Drivers willing to risk their lives for money and love – Asim, Ismail, Rafiq. Graceful messengers for peace, they touch us. On drives and hikes through the “crumpled mountains,” “parched earth,” and surprising “rushing brooks,” they protect the do-good foreigners, while trying to convince them their country is “not hopeless.”
Doesn’t feel that way to Mim, who awakens to the “realization that my country has done this.” A treacherous hunt made messier by humanitarian entities with good intentions too, but “not a lot of coordination.”
Kalotay also puts us authentically into this setting, describing the threadbare clothing of the Afghan women and men, and landscapes. But it’s the assault weapons of war they carry that hit us in the gut, these being the same guns terrorizing America. Again, a very timely plea.
If this all sounds too dark to be enchanted, the prose is. It makes us see what we don’t want to, or have ignored seeing. Kalotay also has a unique way of expressing things, like depicting an Afghan man as having “the face of antiquity.” Or saying “an old woman’s face is beautiful in the way the old become beautiful.” In how she boils down fifty years of the Islamic Republic’s history in one sweeping paragraph. Prose aimed at making thoughtful, penetrating points through her characters’ eyes and development.
The author did her homework, acknowledging Desert Storm and other experts who provided “first hand insights into Afghanistan, the eastern border regions, and humanitarian aid work.” No matter what they told her, she alone created the seat-of-your pants scenes in what feels like the scariest place on earth.
Mim’s journey is candid and raw. She shows us what it’s like to step so far out of your comfort zone, to get a better sense of “things so far beyond us.”