Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

I have to admit: I came this close to giving up on this book by Nadia Hashimi after about 50 pages. I  could not follow what was going on, couldn't engage with the characters. And just as I was about to call it quits, everything started clicking. And I'm glad I didn't give up.

The novel traces the lives of two women, Rahima and Shakima, in Afghanistan nearly a century apart. The premise of the story is that both women lived as boys for a time during their youth, and thus they experienced the amazing freedom that comes with being a boy vs. the oppressive life of living as a woman.

Rahima is the contemporary story. She is the third in a family of five girls. Because her father is a drug addict and a soldier, the family desperately needs a son to be able to do all the things women are not allowed to do. When Rahima is nine, she becomes a bacha posh, which is apparently a bizarre Afghan custom that allows young girls (in sonless families) to dress as boys and navigate the world as such until they reach puberty.

Rahima experiences this incredible freedom for several years: going to school, trading in the marketplace, playing in the streets with the boys, even being treated as a son in the home. But then at age 13, her father makes a deal with the local warlord and gives his three oldest daughters, ages 13-15, in marriage to him and his relatives. Rahima becomes the fourth wife of this abusive warlord who is 30 or 40 years her senior. Needless to say, her life is filled with nothing but horror in a home ruled by cruelty, fear and jealousy.

Rahima's one saving grace is her unmarried aunt, who, from her earliest memories, has told her stories of her great-great-great grandmother, Shakima. These stories carry Rahima through her childhood and give her hope for her future. Shakima's childhood was made up of one tragedy after another. She dumped hot oil on her face as a toddler, scarring her horribly. By the time she was twelve, her beloved mother and siblings had all died of cholera, leaving her and her brokenhearted father to maintain the farm and home. Shakima becomes her father's son, working in the fields as hard as any man. When he dies, Shakima is forced to live with her extended family, who hate her. Ultimately, Shakima becomes a palace guard for the king's harem: a job that requires she dress as a man.

I think what struck me the most in this novel is how little the life of women changed in the hundred years separating Shakima and Rahima. It's really incomprehensible to me. As I consider my own great-great-grandmother, I realize that, although I certainly have more freedom and different expectations as a woman than she did then, she had more rights as a woman than Shakima and Rahima could ever imagine. There really isn't anything happy about this novel, although one does come away with hope for both Rahima and Shakima and intense gratefulness for living in a country that doesn't (as a whole) delight in the oppression of women.

1 comment:

Sharon Williamson said...

I love the way your review starts out. I had the exacts same experience. But as the leader of a book club for whom I picked this selection, I had to stick with it. And I'm glad I did. Difficult to read and even harder to think about after, this is a novel that sticks with you.

Sharon in Ohio