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Review of Zen Under Fire: A New Zealand Woman’s Story of Love and War in Afghanistan By Marianne Elliott

Zen Under Fire: A New Zealand Woman’s Story of Love and War in Afghanistan By Marianne Elliott (Penguin, $34.99)
Reviewed by Helen Lehndorf

The first day Human Rights worker, Marianne Elliott is left alone in charge of the Herat United Nations office where she works, a local tribal leader is assassinated. She must defuse the tense situation to avoid widespread bloodshed…and this is just the beginning of her many intense experiences in Afghanistan.

Marianne Elliott is a brave and intrepid woman, willing to put her own life at risk to help others and pursue her strong beliefs in human rights. It’s impossible to have anything but admiration for her courage as this memoir progresses and because she is a New Zealander, she acts as a window or a lens through which the New Zealand reader can see Afghanistan and understand it more thoroughly than any amount of news bulletins could convey.

This is the book’s great strength, Elliott puts a relatable angle on a huge and complex situation. I felt like a I had a much clearer understanding of not just the situation in Afghanistan, but the machinations of international justice bodies and aid organisations after reading this book. Elliott really shows what is and isn’t possible when foreign aid bodies enter a country at war.

There are also omissions to the narrative, which I found a curious writing decision. As part of the United Nations policy, workers are asked to take one week off per eight weeks for an ‘occasional recuperational break’. Marianne goes to the United Kingdom, the USA and Thailand on these breaks, does interesting things in each place and yet for some reason chose not carry the narrative through these interludes, instead she skips over them when I was curious to know how she fared in what must have been at times surreal short breaks, from spartan Afghanistan to all the Western comforts and friends who had little sense of what she was coping with. On her visit to the UK she obtains a one-to-one teaching with an internationally-respected meditation teacher, Richard Reoch, and yet does not write about her encounter with him at all. While perhaps she might have felt these interludes were irrelevant to the story she wished to focus on – the situation in Afghanistan- meditation becomes one of the main ways she goes on to cope with her post-traumatic stress disorder and general pressures, so it seems clear that her path to learning meditation was an important part of the narrative. It might have also offered some variance in the tone of the book.

The ‘love’ in the book’s subtitle is obstensibly a somewhat doomed love affair with a colleague. Marianne persists with the relationship when the signals seem fairly clear that ‘he’s just not that into’ her. Looking back, she surmises that this uncharacteristic clinging was due to her vulnerable mental state. I empathise with her taking comfort wherever she could find it under the circumstances. Ultimately, by the end of the book however, the ‘love’ in the sub-title seems to signal the compassion with which Marianne was able to treat herself. She begins the book controlling, hardened and worn down by her own perfectionism and ends the book softer, more emotionally courageous and better able to nurture and forgive herself.

‘Zen Under Fire’ is an inspiring read which both tells the story of an ordinary New Zealand woman in extraordinary circumstances and leads the reader into a deep awareness of the intricacies of the fraught and complex situation in Afghanistan.

ENDS