“Shahla stood by our front door, the bright green metal rusting on the edges.”
So begins the story of Rahima and Shekiba. This book had me absolutely engrossed from the first word to the last period. And this is the author’s first book which makes it a remarkable piece of fiction in my opinion.
The book is actually two stories. Rahima’s story starts first. She is a girl in Afghanistan and is about 9 when the story opens. Rahima’s story begins in the early 2000’s. She has 4 sisters and desperately wants to go to school but her father only lets the girls attend sporadically. Her father is a veteran of various wars in her region and is aligned with a local warlord who keeps him supplied with opium. The girls and their mother spend most of their time trying not to send their father into a rage. The bright spot in Rahima’s life is her aunt who tells the girls stories. One of these stories is about Shekiba who is Rahima’s great-great- grandmother and she lived in Afghanistan in the early 1900’s. Shekiba spent a period of her life disguised as a man and Rahima’s mother decides to do the same thing with Rahima and turns her into a boy. Rahima then enjoys the next couple of years of her life being a boy and getting to attend school and play games with the boys and do all the things that her sisters cannot do. Then one day a misunderstanding turns her world upside down.
Shekiba’s story begins with an accident as a toddler that disfigures half of her face. Her family lives in a compound with the extended family but because of her disfigurement she repeatedly faces rejection from all but her immediate family. I found it especially interesting that she actually finds refuge in her burqa. The garment that we in the West see as a symbol of oppression actually allows Shekiba to leave her home without facing ridicule. Unfortunately, the tragedies for Shekiba continue to mount as she loses her loved ones and is used by her extended family as payment for debts. But she continues to seek more for her life in spite of her circumstances. The stories of Rahima and Shekiba are told alternately throughout the book and Rahima finds hope and courage through the stories of Shekiba.
Both of these girls suffer through brutality and uncertainty in their lives but the stories show how the human spirit can triumph over adversity. It is unimaginable to me the challenges they faced and their ability to keep fighting and stay true to themselves.
This book is a beautifully written debut novel. The characters really come to life and draw you into their worlds. This is a culture that I know almost nothing about and yet the stories of facing struggle and adversity are universal. And while I can’t relate to the circumstances of their daily lives the author does a great job of describing the worlds in which they live.
I give this book 4 out of 4 stars and highly recommend it to those who like a good story or a glimpse into a different culture.