Farishta, Patricia McArdle's first novel, is a compelling and readable book about the challenges faced by soldiers and civilians stationed in Afghanistan -- the constant fear of attack; the unforgiving landscape; the hostile and often corrupt warlords; the uncertain loyalties of Afghan colleagues; the efficacy of their mission; and the constant isolation.
It is also the story of the challenges one woman faces during her one year tour in northern Afghanistan. That woman is Angela Morgan, an American Foreign Service officer with a troubled background and lackluster work performance since losing her husband Tom in the 1983 bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut. Wanting to look like a team player, Angela lists Kabul as her ninth choice (out of nine) on her wish list for her next assignment. Against her wishes, she is sent to Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan as the only American (and the only woman) attached to an isolated British Army Provincial Recovery Team (PRT) compound. She is good at languages, so she learns one of the local languages, Dari, to fulfill her stated goal there of assessing the accuracy of Dari interpreters.
While in Mazar, Angela confronts the sexism and indifference of her male peers, the seeming hostility of her interpreter, and the blatant disrespect of many Afghan warlords and tribal chiefs. Against this backdrop, Morgan works valiantly to do her job, finding allies along the way, yet she is plagued by fear and her past. But as the year progresses, Angela finds new strength, becomes more accepted and befriends both her interpreter Rahim and a young Afghan woman law student, Nilofar. Nilofar is a fearless fighter for young girls who are forced into child marriage and for the rights of women who are imprisoned for "marriage crimes."
Through their friendship, Angela sees firsthand the hard reality of being a woman in Afghan society. While out in the countryside, she is also shocked by the children she observes gathering scarce firewood for cooking, thus further decimating Afghan land. Angela remembers a cardboard solar oven she used as a girl and sets out to build and use those ovens to help Afghan women. With Nilofar's help, she sets out of the camp without permission and in a burka to work with the neediest women. In Dari, one of the local languages, her name, Angela is translated "farishta."
But this book is more than a book about one woman and her desire to help Afghans find their own way. It is a well told story of the daily dangers that Angela and her male colleagues face, the trauma that can accompany their work, and the difficulty they have reentering society.