Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is primarily the story of two Afghani women – Rahima and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, and how they (like many other women around them) are victimised by a patriarchal society. The novel switches between the two narratives, Rahima’s in the 21st century, and Shekiba’s in the 20th.
The reason Rahima feels a strong connection to her ancestor’s life is because they both undergo the custom of bacha posh (translating from Dari to ‘dressed like a boy’), an old custom in Afghanistan where little girls are dressed as boys and the society accepts them as such until they reach the age of puberty. The novel explains it largely as a security measure (the child is able to accompany the other girls in the family, to run errands, even work for income) but it is also a way of preserving a kind of patriarchal dignity (girls are unsurprisingly undervalued and seen as burdens). I wasn’t aware of this practice before I read the novel, and having finished, I did some reading on it and do plan to get hold of some books that have been written on the subject. It is a striking practice, and the question of whether it is empowering or otherwise seems to differ from person to person (although it can hardly be a binary), but it seems that in more than a few cases there is something of an identity crisis, since the children are forced to revert to their assigned gender once they reach puberty.
The book being largely a work of fiction, though, I will review it as such. The question of Rahima’s connection to Shekiba itself confused me a little, although I suppose one should allow some leeway since real life is rarely symmetrical. Rahima herself undergoes the custom and then is forced to shed it at the age of thirteen, when she is forcibly married. Shekiba does not take on the custom until well past adulthood, as a guard for the king’s harem. I have no issue with the connection itself, really, I just think the way Rahima, her aunt and others spoke of Shekiba implied that their lives were far more congruent, and I found that strange. I suppose I felt Hashimi didn’t really manage to bring out the latent similarities in the lives of the two women, and they just felt like two totally different stories at times.
The book has several problems which perhaps could have been resolved with a better edit – although the writing style is one of them. Hashimi can provoke emotion, and there are certain parts in the book which are written very thoughtfully, where interior monologue is very powerful. But there are other parts which feel choppy and rough, where dialogue becomes strange, characters suddenly switch from a casual to formal tone (and vice versa). The overall tone of the novel was not very interesting. Another issue is with point of view. Rahima’s is mostly told in the first person, Shekiba’s in the third, but often point of view would suddenly switch. This happened so frequently I thought it was intentional, but seeing as it contributed nothing to any part of the story I’m guessing it was just lax editing.
The choppiness factor is also due to time jumps and at times this was handled fine, but at other points in the story fast-forwarding becomes a rough and haphazard transition. The novel as a whole seemed to lack a sense of fluidity, not just with regards to time. Events which required more exposition were not given that space, and events which required less went on for pages. At times this inconsistency is evident in geographical elements as well – both girls come from villages outside Kabul but there is much upheaval in their lives, and naturally, they travel. Hashimi is able to describe certain places at certain points in the story but she fails to do it uniformly, and therefore cannot build up atmosphere. This becomes even more of an issue when there is a shift from the rural to the urban. And while Hashimi does elaborate at times on both extremes, she often fails to mention the middle ground.
With narrative inconsistencies come character inconsistencies. Because the lives of two women, from adolescence to adulthood and beyond are under spotlight, missing out major details or skimming over them leaves a void. And it is perplexing to the reader because Hashimi goes into detail about a lot of things, but sometimes just leaves major things hanging.
I seem to be discussing the negatives more than the positives so I will say that there were a few insightful moments in the novel, but they were often mentioned as an afterthought. Rahima casually mentions in a few lines how American outrage post 9/11 did not really make sense to her, when Afghanistan was being ruined by the Taliban (“If only Amrika would have been upset about that too”). But Hashimi does not follow or explore this further. The concept of Shekiba (gift) being passed around like an object, being ‘given’ away, and her constant reassessment of her name was heartbreaking. And characters like Khala Shaima (Rahima’s aunt, born with a crooked spine) in her strength and encouragement were well-written.
With regard to physicality, I feel I should add a personal opinion to the layer of a personal book review (well…those things have to be opinion based). Despite having characters like Khala Shaima and Shekiba (half her face was blackened by an accident with hot oil) and even Parwin (Rahima’s sister, who was born with a limp), there seems to be a slightly excessive, uncritical focus on attractiveness and feminine beauty. It is perhaps a little too much for me to expect writers to describe women instead of calling them pretty or ugly (and I don’t mean this sarcastically) even if those terms are often controlled by Eurocentric standards of beauty. But Hashimi does not spend half as much time dwelling on the attractiveness of men. Every woman introduced however, is casually slated as beautiful, not beautiful, ugly, plain, not prettier than so-and-so, etcetera. For a writer bringing characters like Shekiba into the novel, approaching the concept of “beauty” in such a businesslike and rough manner felt like a wasted opportunity to talk about how the heavily problematised the concept of “feminine” beauty is in most cultures. I also felt demonising figures like the mothers-in-law, wives, and other matriarchs in the novel was an approach that lacked any kind of nuance, without much of a precursor to explain that society had trained them and punished them into enforcing internalised misogyny. For a book that wants to talk about women, how they suffer and still endure, this novel failed on those two counts for me.
I’m afraid most of this review has been devoted to talking about the lows, and I’m sorry about that. I think the biggest issue with the novel was really consistency (which even ruined the ending, Rahima’s storyline was tied up very anticlimatically and felt much too rushed) but it was also the fact that there wasn’t much critical examination in the narration. I did, however, start reading A House Without Windows by Hashimi and found the first few chapters interesting, so perhaps I’ll like that more.