The Swallows of Kabul, by Yasmina Khadra and The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, by Deborah Rodriguez.

Available from Amazon
 Both books I’m going to review share many similarities. They are set in Kabul, Afghanistan under the brutal rule of the Taliban. Yet the first is poetic and dark, told from the POV of locals caught up in events they neither understand nor have any control over. The second is told from the POV of a strong American woman living and working in Kabul, where every day could end in death.

The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra. (Translated from the French).

I love this book. It is written with relentless poetic passion right from the first sentence:

"In the middle of nowhere, a whirlwind spins like a sorceress flinging out her skirts in a macabre dance; yet not even this hysteria serves to blow the dust off the calcified palm trees thrust against the sky like beseeching arms."

Set in Kabul under the brutal rule of the Taliban, this is an extraordinary novel. It takes readers into the lives of two couples. Mohsen comes from a family of wealthy shopkeepers whom the Taliban have destroyed; Zunaira, his beautiful wife, once a brilliant teacher, is now no longer allowed to leave her home without her mahram (male relative) or without donning the full chadari (burqa) which she refuses to do until events dictate she must. Then there is Atiq, a prison keeper who has secretly adopted the Taliban ideology and struggles to align these beliefs with his faith. His wife Musarrat is now dying of sickness and despair.

Mohsen wanders aimlessly throughout much of the book, as there isn't a lot to do under the Taliban, where Kabul is as silent as an unscreamed scream - no music, no theatre, no kite flying, no school, no laughing. During one of his wanders, Mohsen is drawn into the hysteria of an execution and to his shame he joins in the stone throwing, believing his stone is the one responsible for killing a desperate woman. This incident  is the catalyst that propels all four people to their destinies. 

There are many unforgettable scenes in this book, but there is one that I'll never forget and it has to do with the executions and women in burqas. What a twist! What a dazzling novel!

Certainly an adult novel. It is a horror story with the Taliban the blood-lusty demons. I wouldn’t encourage the squeamish or young people to read it.

Available Now: Random House RRP $32.95
The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul is the first novel from Deborah Rodriguez. She has lived and worked in Afghanistan for five years, so this novel has a veracity only possible with local knowledge.

It’s not chick-lit exactly; the settings are far too grim, but it is still a book for the girls. It is rich in culture, replete with fabulous detail about Kabul life (especially how life is for women), with the ever-present dangers of suicide bombers and the often terryifying life lived under the iron fist of the Taliban. But, really, it is the story of five very different women who find themselves living in Kabul, one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Sunny in name and sunny in nature is the brave American heroine, owner of the coffee shop. She ends up in Kabul to escape her boring life in the States and to follow the man who might be the love of her life. She falls in love with the city, the culture and the people, but there’s no escaping Kabul is a  place where danger is a constant. Sunny works hard to protect her coffee shop and her customers.
All of the female characters in the novel are strong, with a powerful story. Yasmina is Afghani, a young woman torn from her family to pay a debt (a common enough occurrence still in Afghanistan) and is abandoned, injured, on the streets of Kabul. Pregnant and widowed, her life is in danger until rescued by Sunny.
Isabel is a journalist from the UK, visiting Kabul in search of that Pulitzer Prize career-making story. But in following her story she endangers her own life and the lives of those around her, with tragic consequences.
Candace is a character who takes centre stage when she sashays onto the scene. A wealthy American, she is causing a scandal by leaving her diplomat husband and taking up (surprise, surprise) with her Afghan lover. She is besotted with Wakil, but there is more to him than his do-gooder ways.
Halajan is my favourite character. She is the oldest of the women, an Afghan born and raised in Kabul. She harks back to a kinder life before Taliban rule. She longs for the freedom women once had and rebels in small ways every day, closely scrutinized by her disapproving, zealous son. Her biggest rebellion – a hidden love affair – could end in disaster.
The coffee shop is the stage where these five women play out their lives. Here they all feel at home, they discover love, experience betrayal while relishing each other. The well-crafted characters are bold yet vulnerable to the effects of day to day life, like all of us. But the day to day details of life in Kabul are a little more complex than the everyday, but the intimate worries of women remain the same the world over.
The male characters were fabulous too. Ahmet is Halajan’s son – a devout Muslim who cannot understand or tolerate, his mother’s small rebellions. Hadi, the cook at the coffee shop, a quietly spoken, loyal father figure of a man, looks out for all five women. And Jack, the enigmatic American who might be more important to Sunny than she realises. Sunny's mysterious boyfriend is not even worth a mention, and I think this is deliberate on Rodriguez's part.
You’ll love this book. Who could not? It’s one of those books I was sorry to finish but I had to keep reading, rushing to the inevitable, shocking series of climaxes.

L'Aussie's Verdict for both books: 9/10



Sarah Pearson said...

I love reading about other places and cultures. Both of these books appeal to me, for different reasons. Thanks for bringing them to my attention :-)

DeniseCovey_L'Aussie said...

You'll enjoy them if you read them Sarah. Both excellent.


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