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-aunt, Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life the same way.
This is the blurb that engrosses the reader, and me for that fact. I picture Publishers and Reviewers calling this debut novel by Nadia Hashimi: ‘... An evocative tale of smells, sights and sounds’ and ‘when fate intervenes’. It sounds incredibly cynical of me but this is exactly what the book is – a story of two women in extreme circumstances – the blurb even says so.
Nadia Hashimi, born and bred in New York, whose family left Afghanistan in 1970, I mean her grandmother was a famous Afghan poet – so she certainly has the credentials to pull off a novel as The Pearl That Broke its Shell, and gives it a stark presentation against the many, and I mean many, titles among its genre: Afghan Fiction; with heavy weights of Khaled Housseni and Arundhati Roy.
Books such as this one are incredibly important, they deliver social messages that we westerners don’t fully grasp in terms of the violence and rights presented to women across our borders. While this title can happily sit next to the likes of I Am Malala and The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, it certainly does fall short with its stilted dialogue, seemingly bad sentence structure and confusing scene changes. I was hesitant with this one, rolling my eyes, I thought ‘Here we go, another copy-cat Afghan tragedy’ and I was proved right.
How I wanted these protagonists to prove me wrong, because their situation is haunting and incredibly harsh, but it fell extremely short. I wanted so to be bowled over by this novel, the setting, and the promise of some amazing women who didn’t get the choice to be who they wanted to be, but rose above it anyway. I suppose that was the message, and it grasped desperately like a drowning victim, except this time there were no Baywatch lifeguards to save it drowning.
The Pearl That Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi features on this month’s Exclusive Books Recommends for July.