Let’s just start off with acknowledging how much of a boss Nadia Hashimi is. This international bestselling author of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and When the Moon Is Low has two books out this fall. That’s right, A House Without Windows is just one of them; the other is her first middle grade novel, One Half From the East, which is out soon, on September 6. But besides releasing two books in a year, Nadia is also a pediatrician and a mom to four kids. What the what! I have a hard time getting myself out of bed every morning. Major respect for Nadia!
Anyways. A House Without Windows follows the story of Zeba, a mother of four who was accused of murdering her husband, something that could be met with the death penalty in Afghanistan. Zeba is thrown in jail, partly for her own protection from angry family members and neighbours, and partly for being the only suspect. She quickly learns that prison for women is closer to a safe home than the homes they came from. Most women are there for things they didn’t do, or things that should not be punishable. It’s an odd kind of depressing with a sliver of a silver lining.
Zeba was the most ordinary of wives for twenty years, but her husband Kamal had started to ‘pray to a god in a bottle,’ leering around town, disappearing for days at a time with no explanation, refusing to feed their children and abusing Zeba. But Zeba held her head high, hoping that he would snap out of it or at the very least, ignore her when he was around. She tried, and as a good mother, she just wanted to protect her children. One day, just a normal day, she hears a strange sound outside, and walks behind her shed. The next thing we know is that Kamal has been brutally murdered, with an axe in his head, and Zeba is covered in his blood, on the ground, shaking. Her children come home to find that traumatizing scene, and soon the neighbours arrive, forming an angry mob. Women aren’t supposed to kill their husbands. Women aren’t supposed to do anything, really.
So Zeba ends up in prison, and slowly starts to unwind and wind up again, and repeat. She misses her children terribly but she can’t deny feeling a new sense of freedom. Zeba has three cellmates. Nafisa was imprisoned by her mother to protect her — her brothers were out for her blood after she was caught having lunch with a widower. Latifah was arrested for suspicion of prostituting her sister, when really the two of them had run away from home to escape abuse. Latifah chose to say she was guilty so she could stay because it was better than what she’d have to go home to. Mezghan is just nineteen, pregnant but not married. She was supposed to be married to a different man, but when they realized she was in love with someone else, they had her arrested.
We also get to follow along with Yusuf, an Afghanistan-born but American-raised young lawyer who has come back to his homeland to tackle the tough case in defending Zeba, and Zeba’s mother, Gulnaz, who is feared for her bewitching emerald eyes and supposed witchy powers.
One of my favourite things about Zeba is how she can come up with fantastic and relevant couplets. They come throughout the book when she feels the most salty and wise, and they’re both entertaining and sobering.
“If a man’s honor is his highest prize
Why then store it between a women’s thighs?”
“Innocence is a word that can only be spoken
If your womanly veil has yet to be broken.”
Nadia is a master of soft, beautiful prose, and I enjoyed underlining throughout my read (don’t hurt me for writing in my book!). This is no surprise, seeing as all of her books are so quotable.
A House Without Windows is a sad but realistic tale of modern day witch hunts. But it’s not full of raging force like you’d expect. The book is quiet, but powerful – Nadia just has to throw the words up into the night sky and we just have to lie down and look up into the darkness. Yes, there is the mystery of if Zeba killed Kamal or if it was someone else, but there’s also so much to unpack from how she got to that point, and how the women in the prison begin to rely on her for powers like her mother’s. The book leans on family, social and justice issues, and it’s wonderfully feminist. A House Without Windows has planted itself on the windowsill of wonderful new literature, and you will find yourself growing along with it.
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