The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

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The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Kerry King
Reviewed by Kerry King
Summary: The story of the women in one family tied by blood and tied by the unchanging inequality of the sexes through more than a century... Enchanting and captivating, this story will break your heart.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 489 Date: February 2015
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0062244765

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Kabul 2007: Rahima and her sisters are followed home from school one day by a boy on his bike. He taunts them innocently enough as little boys do, but with no sibling brother, the girls are unchaperoned in this land that is ruled by the laws of men. And as daughters in a household without sons, in a country that is governed by fear, the consequences will weigh heavily for them all.

Though they protest, the girls are withdrawn from the school that they love. Life in Afghanistan is hard for those who have little and even harder for their daughters. Without an education, the girls will be consigned to the same fate as their mother and her mother before her. Picture a wife who is repeatedly reminded and chastised for her failing to bear a boy-child for her husband; imagine this husband and father, a drug-addicted, indebted guerrilla fighter who leaves his family for long intervals to fight for a local warlord against the iron rule of the Taliban. Then there is Rahima, second youngest daughter, and perhaps the most profoundly affected of all, for she is now expected to adopt the ancient custom of bacha posh.

This seldom practiced tradition, which permits Rahima to dress and be treated as - and for all intents and purposes become - a boy until she is of marriageable age, means that she will no longer be known as Rahima, but as Rahim.

As bacha posh, Rahim, can attend school, go to the market, keep the company of boys, play soccer and chaperone her older sisters. As bacha posh, Rahim tastes the freedom she has always dreamed of; a freedom denied to her sisters because of their sex.

Though bacha posh is not a common practice, needs must and Rahima is not the first in her family to walk in the footsteps of men. A century before her, her great-great grandmother, Shekiba, a cholera orphan, disfigured by a childhood accident, had little choice for her own survival but to make the same decision, becoming Shekib, cutting her hair and donning the unfamiliar but liberating garments of a man.

Like her great-great grandmother before her, Rahima, as Rahim will be granted liberties that she will find hard to give up. Does Shekiba remain living as a man, enjoying the freedoms of their gender? Will Rahima consign herself to a marriage she knows will come sooner than if she had a brother?

Afghan-American Nadia Hashimi's debut novel is a complex story of family, a century and several generations apart, yet who suffer the identical lack of freedom to control their own destiny. The story demonstrates powerfully how time may have marched through the many cultures sharing this planet, bringing change to many but most certainly not to all and brings alive a cultural essence and an emotional resonance with womankind the world over. As I turned page after page, the author switching us lithely and balletically between the stories of Rahima and Shekiba, I considered what we women take for granted when we walk in the sun, our shoulders bare; how we enjoy our careers and the equality of the Western sexes that we pick up and put down with impunity. How we consider so infrequently the freedom we take for granted. How life in Kabul even in 2007 is not a life I could ever envisage for myself. I am lucky. It's not a question I will ever have to ask myself and that is humbling and gratifying in equal measure.

In summary, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is a thought provoking and enchantingly-penned novel that draws distressing parallels between two lives separated by a great swathe of time; I loved it, as I love many debut novels because of the depth of their soul... though this one broke my heart many times in the reading.

Go and buy it if for nothing more than a lesson in humility and gratitude for the riches of your own existence.

If this book seems like it might appeal then, let us stay in the rich cultural oasis of Afghan life and take a wander in the pages of The Kite Runner (Graphic Novel) by Khaled Hosseini - this book really ought to be in your top ten favourite reads ever... or perhaps The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, a tale set similarly in civil war-torn Afghanistan, of a wife who begins to address the taboos of her society and confronting issues of female oppression, may tickle your fancy. You might also enjoy The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N Murari. Finally, we at Bookbag bid the fine ladies and gents at William Morrow a warm thank you for sending us this novel for review.

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