The Pearl That Broke Its Shell,
by Nadia Hashimi
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Length: 452 Pages
Published May 2014
Blurb via GoodReads:
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?
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell took some effort for me initially. I was not drawn into the story as quickly as I would have liked and contemplated putting it down. I’m glad I stuck with it. While I was not always enamored with Hashimi’s writing style, the story itself became more and more engaging as I read.
Rahima is the main POV character, but the vignettes of Shekiba’s life felt equally important. One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel was seeing the parallels between Rahima’s and Shekiba’s stories and the thematic connections between them. Both women’s stories hinge on fate, gender, and the power dynamics that come with gender. Both women are chameleons, sometimes taking on the opposite role in order to gain freedom and access where they would otherwise be forbidden.
Education is all-important in this story, which opens up with Rahima and her sisters being pulled out of school for what is, apparently, not the first time. Rahima takes on the role of “bacha posh” for numerous reasons, but the ability to return to school as a “boy” tops the list. The denial of education is explored as one of the most effective means of oppressing a group of people. Rahima is not allowed to stay in school as long as she would have liked, but even the scant education she has received makes a difference in her life and opens doors that would otherwise have remained shut.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is sometimes difficult to read. It is dark and does not shy away from exploring the consequences of a failure to value women as fully equal human beings, including denial of education, child marriage, and the suffocating sense of hopelessness that comes with being treated like property. The story feels a bit slow at times, but improves steadily throughout. By the end, I was unable to stop turning the pages, hoping and waiting for a better life for Rahima.
If you read and enjoyed The Pearl That Broke Its Shell…
You may fall in love with The Alice Network. This is a historical fiction novel which is stylistically very different from The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, but both stories share some similarities.
– strong female characters
– dramatic, desperate circumstances
– female friendship / sisterly bonds as a central tenet of the story
– parallel story lines separated by history
The Alice Network is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. The story explores the lives of Eve Gardiner, a member of a female spy ring in France during WWI, and Charlie St. Clair, who is 16, pregnant, and searching for her cousin who went missing in the chaos of WWII.