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The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi | Thoughts

Published in: 2014

Format read in: ebook / print

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan

Rating: 3/5

Why I read it: I’ve had this book on my TBR for a while and so when a few of my neighbors and I decided to start a book club, this is the one we chose as our first book. 

One line review: Despite all the misfortunes that are handed to Afghan women, being dressed as a boy certainly brings a ton of benefits. That said, way too many personal tragedies are encountered by our heroines to help them to their destination.

Who should read it: If you've never heard of bacha posh custom or would like to learn more about it in a fictional setting, this is a good choice. Just keep a huge box of tissues nearby.

About: 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. 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? (From Goodreads)

The hell with naseeb. Naseeb is what people blame for every thing they can't fix.

The premise of this book sets up a lot of expectations. Its setting in Afghanistan and focus on women characters from two different time periods was something I was excited about reading. Modern Afghanistan is not known for many liberal values but that wasn’t always the case. In addition, the bacha posh custom was new to me and I was very curious about how a country that didn’t see women as equals would let a custom like bacha posh thrive. 

For those new to this custom as I was, parents who had no sons sometimes dressed a daughter as a boy until she reached puberty so that s(he) could help with errands or chaperone her mother and sister(s) in public. This custom didn’t stop at dress-up. Instead the child is treated as a boy - she won’t partake in any duties that girls/women customarily performed in that community (cooking, cleaning, etc) nor would she ever be introduced as a girl until puberty. She would also be sent to a boy's school and interact with boys without restrictions.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell moved back and forth between two periods in time. During the late 19th century/early 20th century, Shekiba loses her entire family (parents and three siblings) before she is out of her teens. Her father had been her sole companion for those last few years and she had grown up more like a boy than a girl. She knew her way around the fields, could lift very heavy loads, and by the account of almost everyone she meets, is not very feminine. When her parents die, she is taken in by her extended family but is not treated well at all. 

Almost a century later, Rahima faces very similar challenges. As the middle of five girls, she is at the right age to be a bacha posh - the lack of a son is something her father constantly reminds her mother. But more than that, not having any male relatives who could help with errands (the father is constantly fighting battles or is busy using drugs), is what makes her mother decide to turn Rahima into a boy. 

Neither Shekiba's nor Rahima's lives are particularly easy - they both grew up fast and without much help. Shekiba's life starts with tragedies while Rahima's is much smoother. But very soon, Rahima undergoes several tragedies as well. Typically books that juggle between main characters tend to have one character that's more interesting than the other, making the shift of focus a pain. In this case, however, both Shekiba and Rahima were very intriguing characters and their stories, as tragic as some parts were, made for a fast-paced reading. 

That honestly, is where my enjoyment ended. These two girls ONLY go through tragedies. Yes - that is the reality for some and I would have been okay with it here, if it didn't constantly feel as if the tragedies were all there to drive the characters toward a destination that has been hinted from the beginning. There are several occurrences that didn't add any value to the story but just made it easier for the character to reach a certain point in life.

When my book club met, I was very curious to see what everyone thought. This book was my pick and I myself didn't enjoy it. The feedback in the backyard was unanimous. No one liked it but everyone found it hard to put the book down.

I know I'm in the minority here because this book does have a ton of 5-star reads. While I had a lot of issues with it, the below two were my principal ones:
  1. Too much senseless tragedy facing just these two characters (and not the others though some do see some amount of sadness).
  2. In some ways, the freedom that Shekiba and Rahima experiences on account of behaving or dressing up as a boy is what helps them fight back against the injustices meted out against them. Barring one other woman, no one really thinks that women should have any kind of freedom. So, rather than being a book about how women didn't have good fortunes, it became a tale of only boyish women finding their way. 
I definitely struggle with recommending this book. Instead, there are several other Afghanistan-based books by local authors that I enjoyed better. That said, there are many who did love this book and I would certainly suggest checking those out for a different perspective.

If you've read the book, what did you think about it? 

What is your favorite book based in Afghanistan?