In Zimmerman’s debut novel, two American women, a doctor and a lawyer, try to improve Afghan women’s lives even as they and their local allies find themselves in constant danger.
Cousins Catherine and Alyse have had a long-standing interest in social-justice issues dating back to their days volunteering at Berkeley, California, soup kitchens. Working together for over 20 years, they’ve developed a system for helping people in developing countries: Catherine provides training in midwifery and reproductive health, while Alyse encourages and educates women to build their legal competence. In 2003, they organize a dual medical and legal clinic for Afghan women, though Alyse has doubts about their effectiveness in a “culture that virtually squeezes the life out of females” and is still at war. This novel, spanning the years 2006 to 2013, describes the effort from various points of view, including those of each of the cousins; Nina, Catherine’s son David’s partner; and Rashina, a young Afghan woman who comes to work with them. Rashina’s story lies at the center, because her family becomes embroiled in a vindictive warlord’s power grab—one that eventually touches the Americans’ lives. The resulting danger and heartbreak raise questions about whether it’s possible, without excessive cost, for an outside country to make a dent in Afghanistan’s entrenched cultural, social, economic and religious problems. Zimmerman, who worked for the Peace Corps and in Afghanistan for six years, uses her firsthand knowledge to present an authentic, telling, detailed and well-rounded picture of these issues and tells of the hard-won rewards of battling against seemingly impossible odds. After reading this novel, it’s hard not to conclude that international development in countries like Afghanistan is futile, which can make this earnest, statistic-laden novel an even more difficult read. “The human brain can only take in so much…emotionally charged and depressing information,” warns Catherine, for good reason; that said, Rashina, and other young Afghan women like her, still holds out hope for a better future.
An honest and eye-opening, if sometimes overly didactic, account of what it takes to try and make a difference in the world.