The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is the debut novel of an Afghan-American writer, Nadia Hashimi’s. She weaves a fictional tale of two sisters, Rahima and Shekiba, growing up in a misogynistic, feudal, sectarian society in Afghanistan.
The story takes the reader into the male-dominated, narrow-minded culture of Afghanistan. Women are treated no better than chattels of the family in which they were forced to wed, wedding based on debt repayment rather than romance and love. Violent interactions accompanied by offensive and aggressive behaviour is typical of many marriages we can assume from is being described and the higher the economic or political status of the man, the worse the abuse. We are exposed to a culture which we would label as backward, primitive and anachronistic. Women have no status; they are near slaves in the household to which they belong. They have no rights, no freedoms and are kept like prisoners in the family home. The husbands’ intent seems to be to keep women isolated and away from any exposure to more liberal and egalitarian lifestyles as lived by women in the western world.
Set in Kabul in 2007, the story is a well written and suspenseful tale of two sisters. Shekiba is a facially disfigured subteen at the outset of the story. Intelligent, somewhat schooled so she is able to read and write, attributes which ultimately open the door to her escape the abusive cultural imprisonment. Her escape comes through her being permitted to participate in the ancient custom of bacha posh which allows her to dress and be treated as a boy until she is of marriageable age. More doors open to her as a young boy and this will ultimately free her from her social imprisonment.
On the other hand, her sister, Rashima, is used as debt repayment and given away to a brutal older autocrat who routinely abuses her, an abuse which would not be tolerated by the majority of women in the west. Eventually, because of her limited but usable literacy capability, she finds a door of opportunity and escapes to a safe house for abused wives in Kabul.
I liked the development of the story, the balancing of the sister’s personal sagas, their development, and their lives. Each time the reader thinks the end of the road has been reached for one of the sisters, something new occurs and the story unfolds some more. When one is convinced that a certain outcome is inevitable such as the stoning of Shekiba for her failure of responsibilities as harem guard, an unexpected twist is thrown into the tale and the story unfolds some more. The book was entertaining and suspenseful reading.
However, as much as I liked the story’s flow, I found the continuous use of Persian titles and Persian terms very confusing and disconcerting. Adding the suffix ‘jan’ to a person’s first name compounded the confusion. But matters were worse when exposed to names such as Khala Shaima, Bobo Shagul, Shafiqua, Aquela, Ismail Bardari, and many, many more. Thankfully, even if one is somewhat lost with the unfamiliar names, the story line is so good and so well written, that the book becomes a page turner.
The bottom line
The book is more than just readable. It is an educational voyage of discovery of a culture which to me is abhorrent and unacceptable. No matter the culture, the traditions, the history and the age of their society, abuse of any sort is never good reading, particularly if it is abuse of women.
The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is a story worth reading for its literary polish. I can pass on the abuse but the writer would have no story without it.