Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
By Nadia Hashimi
Published: May 6, 2014

Afghan-American Nadia Hashimi's literary debut novel, The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is a searing tale of powerlessness, fate, and the freedom to control one's own fate that combines the cultural flavor and emotional resonance of the works of Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lisa See.

In Kabul, 2007, with a drug-addicted father and no brothers, Rahima and her sisters can only sporadically attend school, and can rarely leave the house. Their only hope lies in the ancient custom of bacha posh, which allows young Rahima to dress and be treated as a boy until she is of marriageable age. As a son, she can attend school, go to the market, and chaperone her older sisters.

But Rahima is not the first in her family to adopt this unusual custom. A century earlier, her great-aunt, Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life the same way.

Crisscrossing in time, The Pearl the Broke Its Shell interweaves the tales of these two women separated by a century who share similar destinies. But what will happen once Rahima is of marriageable age? Will Shekiba always live as a man? And if Rahima cannot adapt to life as a bride, how will she survive?

My review:

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is a fascinating book because of its depiction of bacha posh and some of the cultural practices in Afghanistan. I have read other fiction set in Afghanistan but I had never heard of bacha posh. Rahima's aunt (Khala) Shaima first suggests the idea to her mother since Rahima's opium addicted dad won't let the girls attend school and they can't even go to the store to get things they need. Rahima eagerly agrees and finds freedom in being able to go to school and run and play with the boys. Her dad also begins to see her as a person as his son "Rahim". Unfortunately this won't last forever and soon enough Rahima hits puberty and has to transform back into a sheltered girl and be married off. 

Interspersed with Rahima's journey is that of her great-aunt Shekiba. Shekiba means gift and as the character notes, a gift is something you give away. Shekiba experienced a lot of misfortune as a young girl. She was badly scarred in an accident when she was a child, then her mother and sister and brothers all died in a cholera epidemic. She helped her father, doing backbreaking labor on their farm but when he died, she was taken in by his family who treat her terribly and sell her off as a servant to pay their debts. Eventually Shekiba finds herself dressing as a man, working as a guard of the king's harem. 

Both Shekiba and Rahima's stories are filled with struggles and sorrow. It is sad that Rahima finds confidence and freedom only when she is dressed as a boy but that confidence gives her strength to face what lies ahead of her as a woman. Shekiba is physically strong but even though she is a little naive because of her upbringing, she also finds mental strength through her experiences.

This story focuses predominantly on women but what is sad is that even though the men in their lives tend to treat them terribly they can also be vicious to each other. The practice of multiple wives certainly makes for some tense family dynamics. There are some admirable women though such as the protagonists, Khala Shaima, and Rahima's friends at the training center.  While the story could be bleak, there was also hope and the ending definitely suggests that there are better things ahead for Rahima and other women like her. The book examines the idea of naseeb, or destiny, and the courage of the characters to try to change their destiny.

I think this book would appeal to fans of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini as well as those interested in learning more about some of the struggles faced by women in Afghanistan. There are also two nonfiction books about bacha posh being released this fall (The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg and I am a Bacha Posh by Ukmina Manoori).

Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss


  1. I just read and reviewed a book about this custom. It was a wonderful read. (The Underground Girls of Kabul - review on my blog!)

  2. Sounds like a fascinating novel. I've never heard of that cultural practice, but it sounds intriguing. Nice review!

  3. Wonderful review Christina, I was undecided about this one but after reading your review, it's going on my wishlist.

  4. This book sounds like one I would absolutely love. Great review!


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