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There are two things about this book that you should know before you read it; both are equally apparent, but one is easier to overlook.
The first is that, although the novel is inspired by the Taliban’s promotion of cricket within Afghanistan in 2000, that inspiration was taken extraordinarily loosely. Murari has taken the spirit — if one can call it that — of that single idea and fictionalized it to the point of structural failure. And what is important to note is that the titular element of the story never becomes thematically weighty. This makes me wonder why Murari felt the need to use the cricket plotline at all in a novel that’s really about the difficulty of living as a woman within an Islamic theocracy.
The second thing you should remember is the one thing that I feel most people won’t actually notice. Which may or may not be a good thing. Basically: this is a 2012 novel, published in English, written (although by an Indian author) from a very Western perspective and with a very American tone — and it’s about the pre-9/11 Taliban in Afghanistan. If that doesn’t strike you as something worth considering when reading a piece of fiction, then don’t worry about anything I have to say here, and enjoy The Taliban Cricket Club. But if it does, then your time might actually be better spent thinking about the cultural narrative stuff going on here than reading what is really a very simplistic novel.
So like I said, this is really a book about the experiences of a young Afghani woman who attempts to overcome the physical and psychological bonds of a male-dominated society. And, now that I’ve finished it, I can’t help thinking about the novel that hits this line of thought better than any other — Margaret Atwood’s 1985 powerhouse, The Handmaid’s Tale. The thing Atwood did with her work that was so important was her constant exploration of the power of language, and more specifically the role of language and narrative in dealing with a system that oppresses a powerless group of individuals. There are so many connections to be made beneath a surface of one-dimensional images and collective fear, and Atwood’s use of both representational tools and sheer linguistic freedom draw out something much deeper than the scene of a woman in peril.
I mention this because the deeper layer of exploration is something that, very sadly, The Taliban Cricket Club lacks. I was excited to read the work of a non-white author on this subject matter, but Murari just doesn’t seem concerned enough with the development of what are really complex themes. The novel is, for lack of a better phrase, much too easily digestible. It’s pop-fiction disguised as literature. (The dialogue and overall voice are strangely awful — as just one example, after winning the tournament in an ostensibly climactic moment, the heroine/narrator describes her cricket team’s celebration thus: “’We won, we won, we won!’ we shouted, jumping up and down.”)
It’s weird to think, but maybe there’s a reason for this besides the fact that Murari just happened to do a bad job. Maybe we’re reaching a small turning point in Western fiction, one at which we can no longer access representations of a complex Afghanistan before 9/11 and our subsequent military/political/media involvement there. It’s harder to successfully delve into the minds and society of both the Taliban and those oppressed by their regime because it’s hard to imagine them doing their dirty work untouched — without being in a continual push-and-shove match with the America military and its citizens at large. Why, then, should Murari expect his American readers to be able to imagine this subject as insightful? Why not just feed them a Hollywood-esque narrative of the sports underdog, rather than fully exploring the mind of his strong female character as she seeks to beat the system? Who knows. All told, it takes much more than a stock plot and a catchy title to confront those issues.