I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I think it is very well-written, contrary to some reviewers who think otherwise. The narrator’s voice remains in character, and the language flows nicely. Though the writing is conversational, it does not succumb to the repetitions and irrelevant interjections that cause actual conversations to become boring.
This book is as much personal memoir as it is an account of how the Kabul Beauty School developed. The author’s personality weaves in and out of her environment in a fascinating account of cultural conflict, cultural engagement, and the remarkably unpredictable results that emerge when people do not let go of their own cultural orientation while trying to function in foreign country.
Deborah retains her American perspective on just about everything; she continues to smoke and drink in a Muslim society, looks forward to celebrating Christmas, and feels little need to adjust her behavior with men in deference to the prevailing attitude of quiet feminine subservience. In this way, she is different from the authors who accept the religious and cultural attitudes of their adopted countries.
At the same time, Deborah becomes profoundly involved with many of the women who attend the beauty school. She also marries an Afghan man, only a few weeks after she met him, and in spite of the fact that neither speaks the other’s language. Many readers will frown upon a protagonist who makes such a vital decision based upon none of the commonly accepted parameters that predict marital happiness, but this decision, probably more than her other decisions, displays her personality perfectly. She is a risk-taker, and willing to assume the consequences.
One wonders how it has fared over the years, but I suspect both of them will accept the influences over which neither has much control to strengthen or dissolve the marriage.
The beauty school closes and opens, and closes again, amidst accusations and rumors regarding what Deborah did or didn’t do with respect to taxes and other aspects of the business. Who knows, certainly not the reader of this book, but none of that is important to the purpose of the book, which is exactly what Deborah says it is– an account of the terrible circumstances of the lives of Afghan women, and how the beauty school gave some of them a chance to develop themselves in a way that most women of the world take for granted
July 8, 2010
(The metaphorical Riyadh has room for book reviews.)
Anyone familiar with Islam and/or the Middle East will recognize at once that this author knows whereof he writes. He should; he was born and raised in Afghanistan, but has lived in the United States long enough to digest the differences, complexities and contradictions of both worlds.
I wouldn’t have read this book, because I am sick of reading about the poor, downtrodden Middle-Eastern woman. My colleagues, however, are all reading the book, and they practically thrust it upon me. I felt duty-bound to read it and correct whatever misinformation might be pouring forth from the book into their naive minds.
In fact, I was the one who was impressed with the story’s apparent authenticity. Though I’ve never lived in Afghanistan, I know this book could have been a memoir as easily as it is a novel. I won’t go into the plot or the resolution, but I will say that the characters are drawn in all the complexity and irony that marks the human condition beyond its containment within the straightjackets of cultural indoctrination.
I can offer nothing but praise for the book.
The only other thing I added for the benefit of my colleagues was that I’d like to read books about women who are living happily in the Middle East, whose lives are not circumscribed by repressive forces. I know that happy women exist there. I was one of them, and so were my friends. I still have friends who wouldn’t dream of returning to the US to live; they’ve got it too good in Saudi Arabia.
That being said, I do underscore the need to tell the stories of Mariam, Laila, and others like them. Even Rasheed, ogre that he was, could not have behaved but as he’d been taught to behave from growing up around men who taught him, by example, how to behave.
Tariq, however, as well as Abu Laila, grew up under a different set of values which offer a counterpoint and point of departure for the embodiment of the universal values set forth by all religions.
Novels such as this one are nothing if not an important contribution to the edification of readers who would not otherwise be afforded opportunities to enter into the lives of people like Mariam, Laila, Rasheed and Tariq. This is the kind of novel that can swing the tide of entire populations, and therefore position people for the change that must come before this world can thrive in peace, not only peace between men and women, but between cultures and countries.