Guest Author: Jill McGivering: Reviewing The Last Kestrel

Author: Jill McGivering

As well as being a novelist, I’m also a foreign news journalist with the BBC – and the inspiration for THE LAST KESTREL came from a real life incident in Afghanistan. I was embedded with British troops in Helmand when they launched an offensive into an area controlled by the Taliban.

When I advanced with them into the first target village, I discovered that one of the bombs had fallen on a local home. It killed a family of six, including three children. It was a tragic and of course unintentional loss of life. But even after I returned to the UK, I felt haunted it.

I’d been reporting from Afghanistan regularly since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and had spent a lot of time interviewing Afghan civilians, especially women, about their lives and opinions.

Now I thought often about these particular villagers, wondering where their loyalties lay, why the family hadn’t fled when the fighting started and what the surviving villagers made of the foreign troops. I never found actual answers – but the questions eventually led to THE LAST KESTREL.

It’s a fast-paced story, set against the backdrop of the current Afghan conflict. The story and characters are very much fictional. It’s told from the viewpoints of two very different women. Ellen is a British correspondent who’s embedded with the troops. Hasina is an Afghan villager, a devoted mother whose son becomes caught up in the violence.

It’s been described as a page-turner with memorable characters. I hope too that it helps people to empathize with the Afghan civilians who are caught up in the war and inspire them to think more deeply about what’s happening in Afghanistan.

People often ask me: is Ellen really you? She isn’t. She takes risks, breaks rules and makes herself central to events in a way in which I never would in real life. It’s behavior which would be dangerous in reality but adds suspense and pace to a novel. 

The fact I’ve worked as a BBC journalist and foreign correspondent for almost twenty years and spent much of that time in war zones means I have first-hand knowledge of frontline journalism, including in Afghanistan. I draw on that experience to describe Ellen’s world.

Similarly, Hasina is a fictional character. I’ve met dozens of strong, brave, often outspoken Afghan women in the course of ten years of reporting there. I was motivated, in creating her character, by a sense that, although Afghanistan is very much in the news now, we don’t hear the voices of such women enough.

I was keen as well for the moral landscape of the novel to be grey. There are no absolutes, no good or bad characters – only a series of people caught up in a bloody conflict and trying hard to protect those they love.

I’d love to know what you think of the book. Drop me a line via my website and if you enjoy THE LAST KESTREL, do try my second novel FAR FROM MY FATHER’S HOUSE which also features Ellen Thomas – and the Taliban.

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