SPOILER ALERT...I just don't know how to review this book without giving away a couple of major plot items.
I've been reading a lot of books lately, and most of them I don't bother to review. The fact of the matter is, I'm not a good book reviewer. I like almost everything I read, for various reasons and to varying degrees. But that does not make for the most objective reviewer. But this book...it deserves to be reviewed.
This book, like the movie "Slumdog Millionaire", is one of those stories that just needs to be out there. Except that there is no pretty ribbon at the end tying this story all together. No shiny, happy ending. I'm not going to give anything away, but if you happen to make it all the way through this book, there's nothing really that can redeem the story and make you go away smiling...even though the attempt is made.
The story follows two women and their lives in war-torn Afghanistan. The book is split in sections, which alternate POVs from one woman to the other - with section 3 alternating by chapter. The first woman, Mariam, is born in the late 1950s, the illegitimate daughter of a rich cinema owner and a maid. She grows up in a hut (kolba) that her father built for Mariam and her mother, knowing that they couldn't stay in his household (because, you know, it's okay to have children with your three wives, but once you have one with your maid, then your honor is disgraced). Mariam grows up being constantly reminded of her status as a "harami" (bastard child) by her mother, and always being told that she would never amount to anything. When her mother kills herself, Mariam (age 15) goes to live with her father, who quickly arranges her to be married to a man several decades her senior. Rasheed makes shoes for diplomats in Kabul, and so Mariam is quickly put on a bus with a strange man to ride to her new home across the country. Though Mariam tries to be a good wife to Rasheed, things go downhill once she is unable to provide Rasheed with the son he so desperately wants.
The second woman in the story is a young girl named Laila who is born in 1979 - right on the cusp of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Laila is born in Kabul, across the street from Rasheed and Mariam, to a university-educated teacher father and his wife, Fariba. Babi and Mammy, as Laila refers to them, are progressive, and Laila is allowed many freedoms that more traditional Afghans (like Rasheed) view as disgraceful. Laila's best friend is Tariq, a boy just a year older than she, who lost a leg to a land mine at the age of 5. Laila and Tariq are inseperable, until Tariq's family finally makes the decision to flee Afghanistan, in the mid-1990s. The two share a moment of indiscretion before Tariq evacuates with his family, and Laila refuses to leave with him and abandon her parents, who are torn up over the deaths of her two older brothers at the hands of the ongoing war.
A couple of weeks later, Laila and her family are packing up to leave Kabul when their house is bombed. Laila's parents are both killed, but Laila manages to survive, and is nursed back to health by Mariam, who has watched the young girl grow up. Rasheed decides Laila would be a perfect second wife, and his proposal is swiftly accepted by Laila...who is now six weeks pregnant with Tariq's baby and is terrified of trying to flee Afghanistan alone in her condition and have a baby in a refugee camp.
Thus the two stories intertwine, and Laila, Mariam, and Rasheed become one of the most disfunctional families ever. The entire book is set against the backdrop of constant civil war...first the warlords against the Soviets, then the warlords against each other, then the warlords against the Taliban, and so forth. The tragic twist comes in seeing these events from the prospective of women in the 1990s who are robbed of even basic freedoms - walking down the street, learning, entertainment.
This isn't the type of book I would normally read in my free time. For one thing, it's the exact opposite of escapism. I found myself needing to escape from the story several times, and even had a couple of bad dreams (I won't call them nightmares) about events in the book. But it's also infectious. The author's storytelling style is riveting. I had to keep reading, through all the atrocities of the book, to find out what happened to these women. I was rooting for them both at every twist and turn. My heart ached for them, and yearned for better things for them both.
Ultimately, I am glad I read this book. It is haunting, but it drew me in from the very beginning. It certainly put life in perspective for me...and made me very grateful that I was born in the United States and not Afghanistan. Reading this book was an eye-opening experience, and one I'm glad I had. I would recommend it to anyone who has the gumption to take on a book with such a grim subject matter. Though I wouldn't say it was fun, this was definitely an Important read. When a book changes me, the way I think and feel...that's a sign of a good book.