Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Pearl That Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Rahima is the third of five daughters in her family.  Living in Afghanistan, even in the early twenty-first century is difficult for girls.  Rahima and her sisters can only sporadically attend school, not having a male family member to escort them safely between there and home.  Add to that the problem of Rahima's opium-addicted father who disappears for long periods to fight under warlord Abdul Khaliq, and Rahima's family is all too often left with too little money and too little safety to get by.

Luckily, Rahima's outspoken Aunt Shaima has a story and idea to solve the family's problems.  Shaima's story is of the girls' great-aunt Shekiba, who, facing hardship, was forced to dress as a man to serve as a harem guard for the King nearly a century earlier.  Shaima encourages her sister, Rahima's mother, to take advantage of the custom of bacha posh that allows for a daughter to dress and be treated as a boy until she is of marriageable of age.  Suddenly, Rahima is Rahim, learning what it is to enjoy the much greater freedoms of being a boy in Afghan culture.  As a bacha posh, she can escort her sisters, go to the market, go to school without being harassed, and even have a job to provide for some of the family's needs.  But, what will life hold for Rahima once she is of marriageable age? How will a girl who was busy learning how to be a boy, learn how to be a bride?

In The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, Hashimi makes the daring choice to tell Rahima's story side-by-side with Shekiba's, giving nearly equal time to each.  All too often, this approach leaves me disappointed in one character's story and hungering for more of the other.  Not so here, Hashimi handles her two main characters, separated by time but united with some of the every same problems, with skill.  Both Rahima's story and Shekiba's are equally compelling, and I found myself racing through the pages because, regardless of which character was the focus, I was always excited to hurry after the outcome of the other character's story as well.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is a well-told and incredibly engaging novel that explores what it is to be a woman in a culture that in the past and even much more recently values women chiefly by their ability to produce sons and serve their households.  The book digs into themes of womanhood and destiny.  Is it a woman's destiny to be married off by her father to a man who will mistreat her?  Is it her destiny to be cast off by her family if she has a physical defect?  The Pearl That Broke Its Shell asks whether it is an Afghan woman's fate to be swept along by the tides of her life into any situation or whether, in fact, destiny is something that can be changed if only a woman might be brave enough to take action.

In Rahima and Shekiba, Hashimi has created a pair of women characters who face seemingly insurmountable challenges in their lives.  Other women in their culture and circumstances might give in to the powerful forces that seem bent on keeping them in their places, but these two brave Afghan women fight to emerge from the circumstances that bind them and change the courses of their lives in the process.  In The Pearl That Broke its Shell, Nadia Hashimi has given us two indomitable characters to root for, but, even more than that, she has also given us a picture of a culture that can be transformed by women brave enough to speak and to know that their paths in life don't have to be subject to a destiny beyond their control.

Highly recommended!

(Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy for review consideration.)


  1. That's just the kind of book I love!

  2. I am looking forward to reading this one. Often when I read books like this, I end up favoring the historical story more than the contemporary one--whether because of my own preference for history or the author's failure to balance the two stories well, so I am glad to hear the two are equal here.

  3. I just checked this book out of the's sitting on the nightstand beside my bed waiting for me to start reading it. I'm glad to know you liked it. I was a little worried about the dual timeline thing because it's not my favorite narrative form, but it sounds like it works in this novel. Your review makes me want to start reading right now! :) Great post.

  4. Oh, how fantastic! I think this is one of the very few review copies recently that I've requested - I'm excited to see it come my way!

  5. A publisher had emailed me about this book but I wasn't sure if it would be any good. It's nice to hear that it's a fantastic story! It sounds amazing.