A book about the Iraq War. A book about the Iraq War with a soldier draped in the United States flag on its cover. A book about the Iraq War that starts with bangs and bombs, action and armies. I didn’t think I would make it past Burden of the Desert’s opening chapter.
And then a girl called Zoe Temple enters. Young journalist from London. This boys-toys guns and gore story just got good. On a dismal, dreary London day, Zoe is asked by her editor at the Informer to fill in for a senior war correspondent. And so she is sent to Iraq – her dream. Hours on planes and hiding in the back of a jeep under a blanket, across the desert through the night from Jordan, through military checkpoints and she is there – in Baghdad – fresh faced and full of idealism. But trying to save Iraq and its people through ingenuous journalism is going to be a hell of a lot tougher to achieve than she could have imagined.
The author creates a fantastic patchwork of plots and subplots that flow as seamlessly as if we are watching them on film. And let’s do hope that this novel makes it onto screen. Whether it was the heat, the dirt, the rumble of war or political thrill of it all, I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s Blood Diamond throughout the 600 pages (that feel more like 200). One could also draw parallels between Zoe Temple and Maddy Bowen (played by Jennifer Connelly in the film) – on a mission to put the world right… and not without a dose of sexual chemistry among the rumble and bomb smoke.
Justin Huggler has lived through the burden brought by Iraq’s desolate desert. He has lived in the sultry, sleazy world of the Al Hamra Hotel, hung out in suspicious cafes and almost witnessed his own death crossing borders.
Hot, dry and dangerous – Iraq is far more dangerous than Afghanistan, according to the author – this novel is the perfect ticket out of the cold, damp trudge of everyday England. A book that makes you want to become a war journalist and witness terrible things. It gives us universal experiences, told completely personally. It makes us know what it is to be overcome with morphine, to shatter bones and to fire a machine gun. It makes us taste the monstrous heat and the misery of the desert’s winter nights.
While Burden of the Desert is action packed and political, it never stops being one primarily concerned with the human element and this is what makes it excellent. The politics are kept lucid and succinct – even the politically averse will find themselves taking an interest – and are in perfect symbiosis with the rush of the plot, that is elevated through some unforgettable characters.
Huggler writes as convincingly with the voice of a twenty-something British woman as he does a Middle-aged Sunni, a Shia youth bent on committing murder, a young man rotting and tortured in the ferocious Abu Ghraib prison or the strong and intelligent Saara, who has fallen secretly in love with Mahmoud – Zoe’s driver and unofficial guardian.
Burden of the Desert will appeal to those with a taste for passion among all the blood shed – making love in a dingy, musty hotel room to the sound of civil war in the humid heat; American soldier meets female Iraqi doctor in a festering children’s hospital; Christian and Muslim makes plan to escape Iraq and marry. It might be unconventional, but romantic it most certainly is.
I devoured Burden of the Desert with the ease, greed and compulsion I would a Jilly Cooper romance. It is racy – not just because of bombs, militia and civil war – but because we get to live Iraq first hand through the thoughts, experiences and moral dilemmas of not just Muslims, but Hispanic-American soldiers, British journalists, rogue Irish reporters and Iraqi Christians.
The book’s events are based on real-life occurrences that appalled the world as they happened. The Lynddie England furore where the US Army soldier was photographed holding a naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash; the hanging of four charred bodies of US military personnel from a bridge in Fallujah; the terrifying battle in the Wadi As-Salam cemetery in Najaf that raged into a three week shoot out and the beheadings of foreign journalists. And, horrifyingly, the unreal proportions of the decay and disease of the former Saddam Hussein Children’s Hospital are not exaggerated in the book.
Huggler’s first novel is superb, exciting and provides many insider views of a war which has probably only be seen by the public in the West through the lens of news channels. In 2004, I was 17 and uninterested in the war, which was tearing that nation apart after the fall of that notorious dictator. This book gave me an education about a country, a war and a period of history which is far, far from rectified. An issue that has repercussions on everything from the surrounding countries and politics back home to the shipping and oil industries. Not to mention the human tragedies that are still going on and will go one for decades to come.