I have such mixed feelings about this book.
Usually, I get a feeling for how I will rate a book by the mid-way point, if not earlier. I’ve read loads of books by this point, so I rarely stray from my instincts. But Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl that Broke Its Shell was very difficult for me to pin down, owing largely to its fascinating subject and inconsistent prose.
Alternating between two storylines in Afghanistan – one with Rahima in Kabul, 2007, and one a century earlier with her great-aunt, Shekiba – The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is a story of the powerlessness women face and the extreme measures they must go to in order to survive. Rahima’s story starts with her becoming a bacha posh, which allows her to dress and act like a boy. Her newfound freedom is short-lived, however, as she soon catches a warlord’s eye. Forced into an abusive marriage, Rahima must struggle to survive isolation and her husband’s wrath.
The second storyline follows Shekiba, Rahima’s great-aunt. When Shekiba’s family is killed by a cholera epidemic, she is passed from home to home and eventually becomes a palace guard for the king’s harem. However, even an honorable position acting as a man can’t keep Shekiba safe from the consequences of being a woman.
The aspect I found most interesting about this book was the practice of turning a daughter into a son. The closest Western equivalent I can think of is calling girls “tomboys,” but even that is far from the mark. Hashimi’s book had many fascinating musings on gender and identity, and how fluidly the two main characters shifted between male and female. Even more interesting – if sad – is the tendency for Rahima and Shekiba to disparage their own sex, assigning traits like weakness and worthlessness to themselves as women, while their male identities are associated with strength and worth. I would have liked to see this topic explored more, perhaps resolving with the realization that being a woman comes with its own strengths. This never happened, unfortunately, and that made me disappointed with the book’s conclusion.
A major issue I had with The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is Hashimi’s inconsistent quality of prose. Many segments of the book read poorly, with a weak command of language. Other parts are clear and evocative, capturing the mood, setting, and characters with ease. Honestly, the book read like Hashimi or an editor had chosen random parts to polish and left the rest alone. Hashimi also shifts between first-person perspective with Rahima and third-person with Shekiba, but switches to first-person with Shekiba at least once. This is an easy fix, and an obvious red flag to the reader.*
Another aspect of TPtBIS that bothered me was the ending – for both main characters. Without going into detail, neither Rahima or Shekiba truly triumph in their stories. I realize that Hashimi very likely did this on purpose, striving for a realistic story. But after all the terrible things both Rahima and Shekiba suffered through, it would have been a huge payoff for at least one of them to have a truly happy ending (I realize not all villains are going to have their heads bashed in with shovels a la Rasheed in “A Thousand Splendid Sons,” but dammit, that scene was epic).
On the whole, The Pearl that Broke Its Shell had an intriguing premise and a weak execution. The custom of bacha posh and gender identities in Afghan culture were very interesting, but the lack of payoff for the characters and inconsistent writing style prevented me from thoroughly enjoying this book.
If the premise of this story interests you, I would strongly recommend watching The Breadwinner, a film by Cartoon Saloon. The drawing of Shekiba I’ve done is inspired in style and execution by pictures of Parvana from The Breadwinner.
*I listened to the Audiobook, so I don’t know if the switch into first-person perspective was an intentional intrusion of Rahima’s thoughts in Shekiba’s story. If that is the case, it is still jarring, given that it is the sole time Rahima inserts her thoughts into Shekiba’s narrative.