It struck me recently: There are plenty of YA books that deal with the military presence in Afghanistan in terms of the U.S. homefront and the aftermath of service (The Summer I Found You, Operation Oleander, If I Lie, The Impossible Knife of Memory, Something Like Normal, If You’re Reading This) as well as a couple about soldiers serving in Afghanistan (The Sin-Eater’s Confession, Torn), but beyond Deborah Ellis’ Breadwinner quartet, I haven’t come across very many (any?) books about teenagers who are actually growing up in Afghanistan. So, for this reader, Atia Abawi’s The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan brings the grand total to two.
Fatima, Samiullah and Rashid—Fatima is Hazara, while cousins Sami and Rashid are Pashtun—played together as children, and are now headed into adulthood. Three years ago, Sami and Rashid left the village to go to school, but now, without explaining his reasons, Sami abruptly quits school and returns to the village. Fatima and Sami want desperately to renew their friendship, to return to their innocent and happy childhood days, but that’s impossible now: it isn’t appropriate or honorable for an unmarried woman to spend time with a man to whom she isn’t related, and that goes doubly so when the people in question belong to different ethnic groups. Although they both know their families would be horrified, Fatima and Sami begin to meet in secret…and when the inevitable finally happens, everything spins out of control and there are long-reaching, deadly consequences.
It’s a mixed bag of a book. The three main characters take turns narrating, and minus her zillion references to Sami’s green eyes, Fatima’s chapters are the strongest. She has so many conflicting emotions and thoughts—love for her family, for the natural beauty of her home; frustration with her lack of choice and lack of agency, she’s angered and betrayed by her father’s hypocrisy and her mother’s viciousness; she has a true and abiding belief in God, but some serious skepticism about whether or not it’s really His will that other people are carrying out—she’s believable, she’s easy to empathize with, and above all, while she chafes at the restrictions placed upon her, it never feels like Fatima is a stand-in for Western reader: She is who she is, a product of her situation and her environment, a Hazara girl who happens to love a Pashtun boy.
Sami’s voice is different from Fatima’s—as is his perspective and experience, given that he’s A) male, B) comparatively affluent, and C) is more well-traveled—but falls into the Perfect Boyfriend archetype, which made him less three-dimensional. Rashid, though, is the weakest link. He veers from frothing-at-the-mouth jealous to red-hot anger to self-flagellating guilt, capable of epic heights of Keir Sarafian–like denial and self-justification, as well as Sydney Carton–esque sacrifice...but none of it ever gels. His shifts in understanding and belief and attitude seem to have more to do with the plotting than with any sort of real character creation, development or growth. Zaman, one of the thuggish militants that Rashid gets involved with, has sympathy for his victims but is in the business purely for the money—he’s a minor character, but reads as more three-dimensional, more REAL than Rashid ever does.
Wow. And that’s just the three main characters! There’s LOTS more to think about, to talk about, to mull over, both as a piece of literature and as a portrait of a place and of multiple cultures. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but oftentimes, that makes for better conversation.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.