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.