'Sparks Like Stars': Afghan woman returns home to confront events that halted her happy childhood
Published in the Witness (27/07/2021)
Sparks Like Stars
Back in happier times, US-based Nadia Hashimi came to Pietermaritzburg for a book launch of House Without Windows at the local branch of Exclusive Books and I interviewed her. Her parents left Afghanistan in the 1970s, but her ties to that country, now in a yet another round of turmoil, are deep, and she draws heavily on them in this, her latest novel.
Hashimi sets the scene back in 1978, with the creeping unease in Afghanistan seen through the eyes of her central character Sitara Zamani, the 10-year-old daughter of an adviser to the president, in the days just before the 1978 communist coup. Hers has been in many ways an idyllic childhood, privileged and comfortable, but all about to come to a sudden and brutal end with the assassination of the president, and Sitara’s entire family. She is saved by a soldier, a member of the presidential guard. But she sees him as also responsible for the deaths of her beloved parents and brother.
Her eventual escape to the US is complicated and fraught with danger, and once there, even when she is in the hands of good people, her life is going to be extraordinarily difficult. But she survives and, like the author of the novel, becomes a medical doctor. And it is in her working life, 30 years on from her escape to the US, that she is brought face to face with her past.
And so, in 2008, she returns to Afghanistan, desperate to locate the graves of her parents and brother, and to confront once and for all the events that brought her happy childhood to a shuddering halt.
Sparks Like Stars is a long novel, fluently written, and the parts set in Afghanistan are compelling. The middle section, which deals with Sitara’s life in America, her upbringing, her working life and her personal life, lacks something of the drama and immediacy of the beginning and the end. And perhaps the ending is a little too neatly wrapped up. As we all know, things seldom come to a tidy conclusion. But Hashimi’s handling of trauma, its after effects and the ability of humans to cope with it is powerful and makes for an extremely readable novel.