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Rachael McGill: Fair Trade Heroin

Gwen Jarman is a keen supporter of human rights. We find her, in the early 1990s, in Afghanistan where she is an aid worker. There are are various problems. Primarily, it is the era when the Taliban are gradually taking over and foreigners are not welcome and female ones in particular. Many of her fellow aid workers seem burnt out and, at times cynical. Because of the rise of the Taliban, many agencies are pulling out. Gwen’s boss, Jeff, has become an alcoholic. Gwen, however, is still determined to do what she can.

On arrival, she meets a Slovenian journalist, Djuro, and they have a fling. However, all her relationships ended when the boyfriend told her not to be so serious or stop going on about politics. Sexism is a key theme in this book.

She is eager to set up a school where women can do handicrafts, in a fairly remote area and Jeff eventually agrees. It is not easy. She cannot just ask the women as they will need permission from their husbands and she cannot ask the husbands as it will be demeaning for them to take a suggestion from a mere woman. She has to speak to the husbands and tell them what is going and let them suggest that their wife (or wives) participate. Of course this not the only example of sexism she sees, with men selling their daughters and a woman killed for alleged fidelity. The man was merely expelled from the village. Gradually the school takes off.

By far the main crop for the village is the opium poppy. They grow it, harvest it and then sell it to the dealers who arrive every year. Gwen gets involved, firstly by suggesting the handicrafts as an alternative to the poppy and then suggesting how they can cut out the various middlemen in the sale and processing of the poppy and make more money. The dealers arrive and Naseer, the head one, tells Gwen she must dress appropriately or leave. She has to obey. She becomes close to one of them, Syed. But even Naseer has seen the writing on the wall and is making deals with the Taliban who are getting closer. Indeed, several of the Afghani say that the Taliban are not as bad as the warlords and drug dealers.

Gwen has to make a hurried exit and is helped by a driver, Roshan, that Jeff sends. However her exit is complicated by the fact that she does not want to leave, despite Roshan’s urgings, and by her plans for the community.

While we have been following this story we have also been following the story of Gwen some sixteen years later. We learn that she has a daughter, Nadia. The father is Syed whom Gwen has not seen or heard of since she left Afghanistan. Gwen works for a charity that helps immigrants in Britain. Not surprisingly, there are clashes between mother and daughter. Nadia wants to experiment with drugs and sex. Nadia works as a babysitter for David Rice, a colleague of her mother, whose wife died of a cancer. David wants to get to know Gwen better.

For those that do not know, there has been the hostile environment for immigrants in the UK, particularly for non-white, non-Christian ones, since the Conservatives took power in 2010. We follow a few of these immigrants. One of them is Roshan, who has been told to leave the UK and that it is safe for him to return to Kabul. It is not. He works as a taxi driver for a dubious taxi company but does not earn enough to pay for an appeal to the deportation order. To augment his income he gets involved in a drug deal that goes wrong. Nadia and her charge, David’s daughter Isabella, witness the deal going wrong, though obviously completely unaware of who Roshan is. Gwen, however, recognises him from the police wanted photos.

There are a lot of issues in this novel. Firstly there is the awful situation in Afghanistan, particularly for women. McGill makes it clear how bad the situation, despite the efforts of people like Gwen. Secondly, there is the hostile environment for immigrants in the UK. These two show that rampant racism and sexism are the norm.

We also have the mother-teenage daughter issues as Nadia and Gwen clash and Nadia struggle with being a teenager (sex, drugs), made more complicated by the fact that Nadia has never met her father and is clearly keen to know a bit about him.

However, a key issue seems to be, primarily for Gwen but also for others, how much one can/should compromise one set of principles to achieve a greater good. McGill is not giving any simple answers here, not least because there are no simple answers, though she does accept that, as we grow older, we may realise that life is more complicated than we thought when we were younger and I can only say, Amen to that.

Publishing history

First published in 2022 by Dedalus