Lipstick in Afghanistan is a novel that shows the resilience and strength of the Afghani people through the eyes of Elsa, an American nurse aid worker whose story intertwines with the local people. Elsa was raised without much but even as a teenager, she wants to give back, horrified, moved, and captivated by photos of war refugees. This drives her to become a nurse as an adult and she works for two years in a Boston ER before being eligible to apply for aid work. She is sent to Afghanistan, to Bamiyan to help out in the hospital. It is there that Elsa comes in close contact with the harsh realities of war, things for which even her time in a busy ER did not prepare her. But she also makes friends and starts to understand local customs, becoming particularly close to Parween, a young, widowed Afghani woman who speaks English thanks to her late husband's teaching. Elsa defies the rules about aid workers and soldiers fraternizing as she meets, befriends, and finally falls in love with an American soldier stationed in Bamiyan also. Despite seeing the fallout of war so closely, Elsa naively believes there to be no further danger, at least not any danger for her despite what her lieutenant tells her.
Elsa's underpriviledged upbringing in the States is woven through the narrative of her time in Afghanistan and while this background helps explain her drive to serve, as a plot thread, it really pales in comparison to the lives of the everyday people in Bamiyan, ultimately becoming fairly insignificant. The tragedy and sadness that so many endured and continue to endure pervades the tale of Elsa and Parween's friendship. Elsa and Mike's burgeoning relationship lends a lighter air to the narrative but the speed with which it occurs seems a bit underdeveloped in the plot. Lipstick as a talisman between friends is an interesting concept and combined with it as a small sign of insurrection against the Taliban, it is a powerful symbol.
Gately herself spent time working for an aid group in Afghanistan and she has drawn a grittily realistic picture of the devastation and hardship that has followed in the footsteps of war. It is clear that she admired the people she met in the country as her portrayals of her important, named Afghani characters is wholly sympathetic. The writing is at times a little clunky and simplistic but on the whole, this is an engaging story and one that humanizes. Readers looking for more novels set in the Middle East will enjoy this one, as will those in care-giver professions.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.