This is one of those where I had to stay up all night finishing it!
Let's talk about The Pearl That Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi. First off, wow! This one doesn't pull any punches. But we must prevail!
This story takes a while to get a handle on. The key is that is switching Point-of-View between two parallel protagonist who are related but separated by approximately a century. You have two women, Shekiba, who is an Afghan woman living at the turn of the 20th century and her great-great-granddaughter, Rahima, living at the turn of the 21st century.
We begin with 9 year old Rahima growing up in a small village with her mother, father, and and her four sisters. Which, yes, young counted correctly, 5 female children. As you can imagine, life in rural, patriarchal Afghanistan becomes increasingly more complicated when a family has all daughters. This life becomes ever more complicated when the father of that family is an opium addict and violent. Trouble multiplies as the family is struggling to survive as their father unable to properly provide for his family and the taliban has taken control of their small village. The freedoms and privileges of women are extremely close to home. And with a house full of women, even the simplest daily tasks such as getting grain from the market is close to impossible.
From here we can see that this will first and foremost be a story of strength. Desperate for survival, Rahima's mother cuts her little girl's hair, puts her in trousers and effectively turns her into what is known as a Bacha Posh. Boys have so much more freedom. The freedom to run in the streets, to go to school, to make money for the family, to haggle in the market. Rahima's family desperately needed a worthy male figure and Rahima was able to become that notion.
A decade before, Rahima's great-great-grandmother, Shekiba made a similar life transition from girl to boy. As a young woman, Shekiba's entire family, with the exception of her father, are sadly taken by cholera. She alone is left with her father to keep up their family farm or risk starvation. Shekiba, who had always shunned and been shunned by the world due to a facial defect caused by a childhood burn, leaned into this new role. She cooked and cleaned but also sowed seeds and harvested; moreover, as her father's health began to decline with age, Shekiba ran an entire household and farm on her own.
But for both of these young ladies, life of freedom tragically came to an end. In Rahima's story, her father, in a blind rage decides to sell of the eldest of his three daughters to a local warlord's family. Rahima is married at only 13 years old and is brutally forced to adjust to life as a brutal warlord's fourth wife. In a similar disruption, Shebika is forcefully taken from her home after her father dies and she is no longer able to hid this fact from her father's family. Her paternal grandmother is cruel and physically abusive, which only serves to lead the other women in the house to torment Shekiba. Unfortunately, Shekiba's destiny does not end there. As "the gift" (the closest literal translation of her name), Shekiba is gifted to a local business man in exchange for a family debt. And of course, this could not be enough. Shekiba is gifted again to the king of Afghanistan and is sent to serve in his royal palace in Kabul.
The roads for both of these young women are difficult and often painful but, as readers, find out, are essential to their futures. The story as unfolded in this particular way speaks to the importance of intent. Be present. Pay attention to everything. Be grateful for everything even if you can't see why it is important at the time. Take note of every person who seeks to take root in your life as you never know how any interaction can change your destiny. Be conscious of pain; do not numb it out but remember that not hurt is equal.
Just breathe. This too shall pass.