Anyone who reported from Iraq during 2003 and 2004 will immediately recognise the rapidly changing – and deteriorating – atmosphere conjured in Justin Huggler’s relentlessly gripping first novel. But few would have been able retrospectively to evoke in such human detail how the hopes initially generated by the fall of Saddam steadily unravelled as the country descended into fear and insurgency.
The book starts with – and continues to be haunted by – the mistaken killing by US troops of a civilian Iraqi father and two children at a checkpoint. But pivotal to subsequent events is Zoe, a young British reporter hoping to make her name as a war correspondent, her relations with a group of more experienced journalists and her exposure to the darkening underside of the country she has volunteered to cover.
Huggler, who was a foreign correspondent for the The Independent, clearly stored his own acute observations during stints covering Iraq; and this helps to make his descriptions, from the appalling squalor of Baghdad’s children’s hospital to the terrifying suicide bombs which exploded among Shia pilgrims to Karbala in April 2004, so authentic; he is writing about what he saw.
Huggler is good on the trade of foreign journalism and he captures well the growing fears and frustration among Western reporters in the summer of 2004, when kidnappings started to make the job more difficult and dangerous. But what lifts the book far above the standard journo novel of derring-do is, first, his deft interweaving of a series of at first distantly connected narratives into a satisfying whole; and secondly his empathetic and credible portrayals of characters way beyond the gaggle of media types who gather each evening around the incongruously clean hotel swimming pool of their home at Baghdad’s faded Al Hamra hotel.
These range from the brave US lieutenant Rick Benes to Mahmoud, the Muslim driver whose secret is his love for Saara, the daughter of an increasingly threatened Christian family; Ali, Zoe’s shrewd and courageous fixer; Adel, whose desire to avenge the loss of a father and his siblings in the checkpoint shootings drives him towards the Sunni insurgency; and Nouri, the wrongly imprisoned and tortured Abu Ghraib prisoner who joins Moqtada al Sadr’s militants after his release.
Huggler has no pretensions – and this is a strength – to be writing The Great War Novel, à la Hemingway. Instead he has produced a literate as well as a compelling and fast-moving story, which also does a great deal to illuminate the tragic and chaotic aftermath of the US-led invasion.