When the Moon is Low
By Nadia Hashimi
Published: July 21, 2015
Mahmoud's passion for his wife Fereiba, a schoolteacher, is greater than any love she's ever known. But their happy, middle-class world—a life of education, work, and comfort—implodes when their country is engulfed in war, and the Taliban rises to power.
Mahmoud, a civil engineer, becomes a target of the new fundamentalist regime and is murdered. Forced to flee Kabul with her three children, Fereiba has one hope to survive: she must find a way to cross Europe and reach her sister's family in England. With forged papers and help from kind strangers they meet along the way, Fereiba make a dangerous crossing into Iran under cover of darkness. Exhausted and brokenhearted but undefeated, Fereiba manages to smuggle them as far as Greece. But in a busy market square, their fate takes a frightening turn when her teenage son, Saleem, becomes separated from the rest of the family.
Faced with an impossible choice, Fereiba pushes on with her daughter and baby, while Saleem falls into the shadowy underground network of undocumented Afghans who haunt the streets of Europe's capitals. Across the continent Fereiba and Saleem struggle to reunite, and ultimately find a place where they can begin to reconstruct their lives.
I loved The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi's debut novel. It was my favorite book published in 2014 so I had high hopes for her sophomore effort and for the most part I was not disappointed.
The story begins with Fereiba as a young motherless girl, a fact that her stepmother never lets her forget. At times it is like she is Cinderella as she toils away while her older brother and younger half sisters go to school. Fereiba is intelligent however and eventually she is allowed to attend school herself though she is several years older than the other girls in her class. She quickly advances earning the admiration of her father. Her future plans come to an end when a marriage is arranged for her. Not to the neighbor boy she has fallen for but to his cousin Mahmoud. Thankfully Fereiba's mother in law is a wonderful woman who makes her feel at home and Mahmoud is a kind and intelligent young man and the two eventually fall in love.
With the rise of the Taliban, trouble enters the picture. Most of Fereiba's family have already fled Afghanistan including one of her sisters who is now in England. When the worst happens, Fereiba realizes that she has to get herself and her three children to safety even though they don't have legal documents. The narrative continues in the alternating voices of Fereiba and Saleem as they travel from Afghanistan to Iran, Turkey, and Europe, hoping to make it to England.
I loved Fereiba's story. I felt sympathy for her from her earliest days and triumph when she succeeded in school. I think that was my favorite part of the story although I found their journey to be riveting as well. It was just easier to connect with Fereiba as a character then before things started to speed up in the plot. I think the story rushed through her marriage years to get the reader to the crisis point and this was to the detriment of character development in the latter part of the book. Fereiba is so vibrant in the first part of the book but that fades as we switch back and forth between perspective.
Saleem was harder to connect to emotionally. I felt bad for him but at the same time I couldn't relate to him or his anger. He could be reckless but he did have admirable qualities like his work ethic and I was routing for him to make better decisions and be reunited with his family. I think it was important to the narrative to have his perspective especially when he was separated from Fereiba and his sister and baby brother. This allowed us to see what it was like for undocumented immigrants in refugee camps and their desperation to escape.
While I didn't always feel the emotional pull or connection with the characters that I'd hoped for, I still thought this book was a moving story. It made me think about the refugee situation and illegal immigration issues especially for those struggling to escape danger in their homeland. I also liked the portrayal of family and the love of a parent. Both Fereiba and Mahmoud are admirable though imperfect people. I wish Mahmoud had more time on the page but ultimately this is the journey of Fereiba and Saleem both physically and internally as they move past the pain of what happened in Afghanistan and learn to redefine their parent-child relationship.
I thought this was a really good book. It wasn't quite as good as The Pearl That Broke Its Shell but Hashimi set the bar pretty high with her debut. When the Moon is Low will likely make my list of favorites for 2015. I think readers who like Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri should definitely give this author's books a try! They are perfect for book discussion groups too.
Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss