There’s nothing better than a novel that sweeps you away to a richly drawn new world, offering that rare miss-your-subway-stop immersion. Last year, Nadia Hashimi’s wonderful debut novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, provided that engrossing reading experience, weaving the dramatic stories of two courageous women from different generations in Afghanistan, each one fighting society’s oppressive rules.
Hashimi’s new novel, When the Moon Is Low, starts with equal promise. Hashimi, who works as a pediatrician in the Washington, D.C., area, effectively plunges us into an Afghan culture steeped in superstition and tradition. Narrator Fereiba, whom we meet as a hopeful young girl in Kabul, is eager for romance, education and independence, all of which are frustratingly out of her grasp. That’s in part thanks to her odious stepmother, who keeps Fereiba home from school to help with household chores. She’s finally allowed to matriculate at age 13, as a mortifyingly tall first-grader.
Life is kindest to Fereiba after her arranged marriage to a loving husband named Mahmood. “I realized,” she says, “not long after our wedding, when I caught myself laughing at a joke he’d already told me twice, that I loved this man.” Their early years together coincide with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a traumatic time for the country but nonetheless an era when Fereiba is free to earn her teaching degree and dress how she pleases.
Then the Taliban rises, imposing a brutal set of rules. Not only must Fereiba don a chador, but the “turbaned tyrants” and “razor-edged religious brutes,” as she calls them, bar her from teaching. Though relatives and friends soon flee, Fereiba’s family, which now includes son Saleem and daughter Samira, stay until their worst fears are realized.
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When Fereiba and children do finally leave, the story starts to slacken as well. Saleem, 15, begins to star in chapters of his own. These sections are written in a distancing third person. “He was determined and ready to be treated like a man,” we learn. That grit will come in handy once Saleem becomes separated from the rest of the family.
These grim passages would surely ring true for the millions of people displaced around the world today. Saleem meets Iraqis, Africans and others fleeing poverty or violence, stuck in lawless refugee camps that grow increasingly squalid as he travels deeper into Europe.
The novel becomes sharply focused on Saleem’s growing independence and harrowing adventures, but the reader longs to hear more from the appealing woman we met in the novel’s lively opening pages. Choosing a single strong narrator might have elevated When the Moon Is Low from pretty good to gripping.
Christina Ianzito reviewed this book for The Washington Post.