Afghan-American Nadia Hashimi's literary debut novel is a searing tale of powerlessness, fate, and the freedom to control one's own fate that combines the cultural flavor and emotional resonance of the works of Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lisa See.
In Kabul, 2007, with a drug-addicted father and no brothers, Rahima and her sisters can only sporadically attend school, and can rarely leave the house. Their only hope lies in the ancient custom of bacha posh, which allows young Rahima to dress and be treated as a boy until she is of marriageable age. As a son, she can attend school, go to the market, and chaperone her older sisters.
But Rahima is not the first in her family to adopt this unusual custom. A century earlier, her great-great grandmother, Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life the same way.
Crisscrossing in time, The Pearl the Broke Its Shell interweaves the tales of these two women separated by a century who share similar destinies. But what will happen once Rahima is of marriageable age? Will Shekiba always live as a man? And if Rahima cannot adapt to life as a bride, how will she survive?
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Strong debut novel
Nadia Hashimi's debut novel is a strong work that explores the lives of two Afghani women who lived a hundred years apart. Both women, for different reasons, participate in a Afghan tradition, bacha posh of dressing a daughter as a boy when there are no sons. The novel tackles the issues of child marriage, abuse, discord between women of a household (second, third, and fourth wives as well as mother-in-laws), opium abuse, warlords, corruption, and the impact of war and invasion on everyday people. The focus is on the burden on women in the society and the split narratives show how little conditions for women have changed.
What is interesting is that the portrayal of Rahima is not a story of someone living under the radical Taliban beliefs, but of the more traditional Afghan society. Her great-great-grandmother, Shekiba's world is that of the monarchy. One can see how despite the changes in government, little has changed for women.
Hashimi's language is beautiful at times but the world she paints is bleak, full of loss and struggle. There is strength in many the women who exist in the novel but it creates a bitterness that they often take out on each other and leaves the reader with a sense of anger and a desire for them to turn that bitterness and anger on the men who have built this dreadful world they inhabit.
The two women's stories end differently, but for me it is Rahima's that falls short. It felt rushed and almost anti-climactic. Granted, at 450 pages, it was time to end it, but there was room for editing earlier on that could have left more space to do her story justice in the ending. It wasn't a bad ending in terms of where it left the reader, rather a poorly paced ending that lost the potential impact of a better structured and written ending.
Despite the rush at the end, the novel is worth the read for the insights into a world few westerners can fathom. It is through novels that we can develop empathy for those who live a life so different from our own.
One would think this story was set in the distant past, not in the present. How downtrodden the women of Afghanistan are! Still, I did enjoy the names and culture.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Amazing story. Great detailed. However, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. I wish the author would have elaborated more on Rahima’s ending. Nevertheless, I highly suggest for everyone to read this book.