Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

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There are not many books that make me cry. I am not talking about a stray tear trickling down my cheek at a heartwarming finish……….this book made me sob uncontrollably at the end of it .

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell tells the stories of two Afghan women: Shekiba, who lives at the start of the twentieth century ,and Rahima ,living in Afghanistan now, post invasion and post rebuilding attempts by the West.

Rahima is born into a family already scarred by the country’s recent history. Her father, known as Padar-jan, fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets . He returns home after the Soviet departure no longer a fresh faced teenager but a battle weary 24 year old. His parents hurriedly arrange a marriage for him :

‘At twenty-four years old , he was long overdue and they thought a wife and children would bring him back to normal, but Padar-jan, just like the rest of the country, had forgotten what normal was’

Rahima is one of five sisters in a culture in which only men are valued. We follow her through her girlhood…..she at least is able to gain some education, unlike her sisters. Her father’s ever increasing absences from home with the local warlord mean her mother is unable to get shopping and provisions for the home as only men can leave the house unaccompanied . Rahima is allowed to dress and be treated as a boy ,an old custom known as bacha posh, to help the household run more smoothly.

Shekiba is Rahima’s great-great grandmother. She is born into a more loving family but  her face is badly scarred as a young child rendering her unable to marry in the eyes of the community. Unfortunately Shekiba’s happy early childhood is brought to an abrupt end by the death of her siblings and then parents. Greedy relatives cheat her of her inheritance and she is cast into the world to make her own way.

Through the parallel stories of Rahima and her great-great grandmother we experience the dreadful injustices suffered by women in Afghanistan then and now. Women are sold into marriage, become the property of their husbands ,are routinely subject to violence and have no access to the outside world. Even a visit to a sister living nearby is only possible in the unlikely event of the husband’s agreement. Women are deemed ready for marriage at the age of about thirteen and often find themselves becoming the third or fourth wife of a much older man.

Rahima’s life also shows us the corruption present today in Afghanistan’s political and commercial life, both are effectively controlled by warlords who bend and twist any controls imposed  to suit their own ends.

A powerful warlord is appalled to find that the rules of the new constitution insist on a certain quota of women representatives in the parliament. His aide and advisor explains to him :

‘I understand that sahib, truly. And believe me I don’t like it any more than you do, but these are the rules. I’m simply suggesting we find a way to work around the system so that we don’t lose all control over this area. The elections are coming up soon. We must plan for this’

The solution found is to put the eldest wife up for election. Unable to read or write and in fear of violence at the hands of her husband, she is a mere stooge and is told how she must vote during each session. Dreadful punishment is meted out to any female representatives who show independence or try to speak out.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is not a polemic however. It is a beautifully written and imaginative novel. The characters are realistically drawn and the setting is vividly brought to life.

At times alternating the stories was a little frustrating however there is a point to placing these two lives together. Shekiba and Rahima are not just blood relatives, they both live during times of great change in Afghanistan. Shekiba’s life serves to remind us that in the not so distant past, full independence was possible for the women of Afghanistan. We can only hope that the same can be achieved for Rahima.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell will be published in the UK on 6th May 2014. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Book Review : A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Regular readers of this blog will know that to mark the centenary of the start of WW1 I decided to do some ‘themed’ reading.

I have already blogged the memoirs of Robert Graves here and also reviewed two recent novels that deal with the war, Wake and The Lie, here. A Farewell To Arms, which I first read aged about 15 ,was definitely on my list.

This is a fictionalised account of Hemingway’s own First World War experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. It is also a love story ,again based on Hemingway’s experiences when there. The bones of the love story had stayed in my memory , not least because of the wonderful film starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, but what hadn’t struck me as a 15 year old reader was the sheer beauty of Hemingway’s prose.

‘ At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.’

Just like Graves, Hemingway is sickened by the senselessness of the mass slaughter caused by the war and the jingoism of its leaders :

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.’

Frederick Henry is an American who has joined the ambulance service as a driver, just like Hemingway himself. The book opens in Udine , northern Italy, where Frederick is posted and where he meets Catherine Barclay a young English, or rather Scottish, voluntary nurse sent to the hospital there.

Frederick initially goes to meet Catherine together with his friend Rinaldi, an Italian army surgeon, who has heard about the arrival of the new nurses and is determined to court them.Catherine and Frederick immediately fall in love and Chapter 4 in which they first meet must truly be some of the most beautiful prose ever written  in the English language. It isn’t really possibly to quote an extract from it, you really do have to read the whole thing.

This is not a long book , only 293 pp in the edition I read, and divided into five short parts. Part 1 gives us Frederick and Catherine’s meeting and Frederick, just like Hemingway himself, is then badly injured whist on duty on the frontline ; in Part 2 he is evacuated and hospitalised in Milan, where Catherine has also been posted. During his time as a patient and after during his convalescence ,their relationship grows ; Part 3 sees Frederick back at the front and subsequently  caught up in a shambolic retreat with the Italian army which leads to a trumped up charge of deserting his post ; Parts 4 and 5 deal with Frederick’s transformation into a fugitive and the resolution of his relationship with Catherine.

This is not , however, romantic fiction. The searing realism of Hemingway’s writing truly captures the pointless horrors of war. Frederick meets a British major in the officers’ club in Milan :

‘He said the offensive in Flanders was going to the bad. If they killed men as they did this fall  the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognise it . The last country to realise they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink.’

During the chaos of the Italian retreat many officers become separated from their men. When stopped this leads to a charge of desertion and summary execution. Hemingway describes the process :

‘Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabiniere on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another man when they shot him.’

There is a poetic quality to the writing too. Throughout ,the rain appears as a harbinger of tragedy…..as can be seen in the first extract I quoted,which appears at the very beginning of the book, and again in the shooting of the officers. Catherine explains it to Frederick like this :

All right. I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.’

‘No.’

‘And sometimes I see you dead in it.’

‘That’s more likely’

‘ No, it’s not, darling. Because I can keep you safe. I know I can. But nobody can help themselves.’

Later in the book, Frederick’s friend and colleague, Aymo, is killed by what we would now call ‘ friendly-fire’ :

‘ Aymo lay in the mud with the angle of the embankment. He was quite small and his arms were by his side, his puttee-wrapped legs and muddy boots together, his cap over his face. He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family.’

At one point the ‘rain’ is transformed to blood, as the wounded Frederick is transported on a stretcher in an ambulance with a man haemorrhaging above him :

‘The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone.It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.’

This is book is truly a masterpiece. Heartbreaking in it’s realism ,it is indeed a testament to lost youth and gives a lie to Michael Gove’s claims that ‘leftie’ comedy writers at the BBC have distorted the history of the first world war.

My next WW1 read will be The Wars by Tim Findlay ,recommended by a reader of this blog and which tells the story of Canadian volunteers . Before August I also hope to write about a book I first encountered in our local public library when I was aged about 14 or 15. This tells the story of a woman’s lost love and struggle to come to terms with her life after WW1. Long out of print, I happily managed to find a second hand copy last year.

Before then, I have some very exciting new releases that have been sent to me to introduce here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

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So what’s on the menu?

Simon Wroe serves up an array of characters : there’s Monocle, the English Lit graduate and now commis  chef; Bob the sadistic Head Chef, who makes Gordon Ramsay look like a soufflé ; Racist Dave , a homesick northerner dispensing nuggets of twisted wisdom and Ramilov ,the under chef with a dark secret.All are working in The Black Swan ,a gastro pub in North London with a menacing regular known as The Fat Man.

Vegetarians Beware ! The book opens with a very realistic description of how to boil a pig’s head .

Unemployment drives Monocle to seek work as a commis in The Black Swan . So what is a commis ?

‘ In the kitchen the commis is everywhere. Like a fly, he sees things that no one else sees, things he is not supposed to see. It is his job to buzz this way and that, from fridge to section to dry store to wine cellar, fetching and prepping and chopping things the other chefs do not have time to fetch and prep and chop.’

Monocle, the nickname given to him in the kitchen because of his degree, has dreams of becoming a novelist and is tormented by the prodigious success of young man of letters Tod Brightman :

‘ I fumed over the ascension of this young writer whom I hated, this tawdry scribbler who spent his life at lunch with his publisher or explaining Maupassant to beautiful women, who had no scars on his hands or bags under his eyes, who woke late and counted his lie in as contemplation, had no vegetables thrust against his rectum unless requested………….I prayed he might destroy himself with a novel of staggeringly poor judgement or a tell-all memoir’

Wroe captures the atmosphere of a busy kitchen….think Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares with bells on. Chop Chop is a surreal black comedy and the kitchen of The Black Swan is the battleground in which all the characters must confront their own demons as well as the morality of cooking and serving  dead animals.

Monocle is our narrator but both Racist Dave and Ramilov jostle for position and urge him to tell the story in their own particular way. We also have a side-order of Monocle’s own tragic family story which  still haunts him, his mum and  his dad, the winner who worked his way down.

The story is perhaps a little ‘thin’ overall but the prose is crisp and fresh. The final lines even have a hint of Fitzgerald  about them:

‘So we slave the best years of our lives: a family of strangers ,a business of flies. Our works consumed and soon forgotten.’

A great debut. With thanks to Penguin Books for the review copy.