Fereiba grew up in Kabul with her father and stepmother, her own mother having died giving birth to her. Her stepmother favored her own children, using Fereiba to help her with housework and childcare, and Fereiba's father never intervened on her behalf in order to keep peace with his wife. Without the love and support that every child deserves, Fereiba had a solitary and sad childhood. Only after the unexpected love she finds in marriage does it look like her life is changing for the better. She and her husband live a comfortable life, she works as a teacher, and they start a family. But when the Taliban arrive, everything is thrown into chaos and Fereiba must learn to live with fear and haunting tragedy. Following the plan her husband set in motion, she makes the difficult and dangerous choice to leave Kabul with her children to try and make their way to her sister in London. Traveling on forged documents, the journey is arduous and exacting. As a mother, Fereiba must watch as her oldest son, Saleem, struggles to become a man without a father and before his time and as her youngest son, a medically fragile infant, suffers and weakens. The small family faces indignities and hardship that they have no choice but to endure and accept as they make their way through an unwelcoming and sometimes hostile Europe. But when Saleem is caught by police without papers, separated from the family, and deported, the blow is horrible. The only option is for Fereiba to go on with the other two children and for Saleem to make his own way.
The story of their flight is emotionally wrenching. Their strength and determination in the face of so many obstacles, including racism and suspicion towards those seeking asylum, is impressive. They do find kind and helpful people to help them along the way so they can maintain hope even in the darkest of times. Hashimi has drawn vivid pictures of the squalor in which refugees live, their desperation and sometime solidarity, and has captured the ever present nagging fear of the displaced extremely well, especially in the character of Saleem. The novel does have a bit of a split personality feeling to it after spending so much time on Fereiba's childhood and courtship and then jumping almost straight into their refugee life with just a tiny bridge over her many years of happiness with Mahmood, her husband and soulmate. The early story is told by Fereiba in the first person while sections focused on Saleem, told in the third person, take precedence in the second half of the novel, although Fereiba continues to narrate the occasional chapter as well. This is an ingenious way to show their experiences as two different faces of the refugee crisis. The story is a compelling and fast read which highlights the continued human cost of oppression and intolerance on a very personal level.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.