Review: The Night Letters by Denise Leith

Title: The Night Letters

Author: Denise Leith

Published: 7th October 2020, Ventura Press

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Ventura Press


My Thoughts:

A captivating novel, Denise Leith draws on her professional and personal experience in The Night Letters, which she dedicates to the women of the the Afghan Women Writing Project.

In need of a challenge, Australian doctor Sofia Rasa accepts a position in the practice of Dr. Jabril Aziz to treat the women of Kabul. She is accommodated in Shaahir Square, where her presence is first met with suspicion, but slowly earns the respect of both her neighbours and her patients, in part by by keeping a low profile, and staying out of local affairs.

Five years after the original expiry of her year long contract, Sofia considers Shaahir Square home, but with the recent disappearances of young boys from the nearby slums of Jamal Mina, she’s increasingly uncomfortable with staying silent. Her interest in the plight of the bachi bazi unintentionally upsets the peace of the Square when some of the residents discover cryptic letters of warning pinned to their door.

The Night Letters is set primarily in Kabul, a city still bearing the scars of the Afghanistan war and the harsh occupation of the Taliban. It’s a very different place from the Australian suburbs, but one Sofia has always felt drawn to. Leith’s descriptions of Shaahir Square are vivid, the space hosts a mix of stores and residences, and its insular construction provides those within it the illusion of safety amid the regular dangers of Kabul.

The people who populate the Square are an interesting group, a microcosm of sorts that in some aspects represents wider Afghan society. The main personalities are Sofia, Jabril and Behnaz, Sofia’s landlady and the wife of the Chief of Police, but the daily activities of other residents and storekeepers, and the relationships between them, are an important element of the story.

Though an obvious outsider with her red hair, Sofia earns the respect of the Square. Jabril and his wife treat her like a daughter, and despite Behnaz’s prickly attitude she too cares for Sofia. As a doctor, Sofia’s patients trust her with both their health and their personal problems, and she also travels outside the Square, assisting at clinics in the slums of Jamal Mina and running a midwife training program in Kandahar. It’s during one of these trips during her first year in Afghanistan that Sofia meets Daniel, an American aide worker.

There are two mystery elements in the novel, both well-plotted. The first involves the anonymous typewritten notes found pinned to the doors of the Dr Jabril and the home of the Chief of Police, where Sofia also resides, in Shaahir Square. When a note is discovered by one of the Square’s residents, warning the reader ‘to tell their friend to stop’, and shares it with some of the others, the vague message worries everyone. Somewhat similar to the ‘night letters’ the Taliban used, there are concerns they are under surveillance by an extremist, and several modify their behaviour in case they are ‘the friend’.

The second mystery involves the whereabouts of the missing boys, not only who may be responsible for their disappearance, but also who is actively derailing any investigation. It becomes clear that the boys are being taken to serve as bachi bazi – which translates as ‘boy play’ and refers to young boys abducted and sold to powerful and wealthy men and used for entertainment and sex. When Sofia becomes involved in the issue she crosses a corrupt politician who has the power to force her from Afghanistan.

With its lovely prose, rich storyline, and interesting characters, The Night Letters Is a wonderful novel, and one I’m happy to recommend.


Available from Ventura Press

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jennifer
    Oct 15, 2020 @ 11:27:01

    Great review, and straight onto my list …. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Claire Louisa
    Oct 15, 2020 @ 22:01:59

    Another novel to add to my wtr pile

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Theresa Smith Writes
    Oct 15, 2020 @ 22:18:59

    Lovely review. Looking forward to this one even more now.

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Helen Murdoch
    Oct 16, 2020 @ 09:02:49

    This sounds really good; thank you for the review.

    Liked by 1 person


  5. Anne - Books of My Heart
    Oct 18, 2020 @ 09:03:13

    Fantastic review! It sounds intriguing and a gorgeous cover too.

    Liked by 1 person


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