Zulaikha is a 13 year old girl living in a remote village in Afghanistan. She was born with a cleft lip and has endured stares and taunting from those outside her family all her life. Her kind and beautiful older sister is her primary emotional support, and Zulaikha is both happy, and sad when she hears that her father has arranged a marriage for Zeyneb. When the Americans come into her village, they offer to perform an operation to repair Zulaikha's cleft lip for free, but she must travel to Kandahar to the American base hospital to have the procedure. While Zulaikha prepares for her life changing operation, Zeyneb prepares for her impending marriage, and both girls courageously face their uncertain future.
I was more caught up in this book than I have been in any book for a long time. This is Mr. Reedy's first novel, but the writing is amazing. I don't know how an American man could create such a believable Afghan girl character. There in is my struggle with the book. The character of Zulaikha is based on a girl Mr. Reedy met while serving in the military providing humanitarian aide in Afghanistan in the early 2000's. He lived in the country for a year, and worked closely with the native people there. Still, all during the story I wondered how authentic the characters were. Is the way Zulaikha and Zeyneb think really how Afghan women would have thought, or does he, unintentionally, place western ideals in the characters minds? He doesn't overtly do so. The character's view of Americans is in no way idealized and his Afghan characters don't obviously fall into cultural stereotypes. There is a long author's note at the end in which Reedy confesses to exactly the same reservations as I felt, but he defends his decision to write the book on the idea that someone ought to write Afghan girls' stories because they cannot write them themselves. It is estimated that between 80-90 percent of Afghan women and girls are illiterate.
I am very conflicted about this book, but I really enjoyed it as well, so you will have to read it yourself and decide what you think. Be warned there is a one passage that contains rather graphic violence, and a few surrounding Zeyneb's wedding, that are a little mature in content, so I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone under 13. (226 p.)