Published by William Morrow
Publication date: August 16th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction
Author Nadia Hashimi’s family is from Afghanistan and her time spent listening to their stories and travelling in Afghanistan herself gives her novels the weight of truth. Her last novel, The Pearl that Broke its Shell, was a blend of the modern day with the story of the fabled women who guard an ancient shah’s harem. In A House Without Windows she stays firmly in contemporary Afghanistan in all its frightening reality for women. The novel is about Zeba, a mother of four who stands accused of murdering her husband. To all appearances she has been a dutiful wife for twenty years, but when she is found in the family’s courtyard with her husband’s blood all over her and his dead body she is almost killed by her neighbors. Instead, with no questions asked or answered she is imprisoned while awaiting trial. A young American-educated Afghani lawyer, Yusuf, takes her case in his zeal to bring modern Western law to Afghanistan.
It’s no surprise that Zeba’s plight is serious. Before being sent to jail she was interrogated for hours and forced to sign a confession she could not read. As a woman she has no rights and there is no investigation into her husband’s murder. For her part she refuses to cooperate with her lawyer and offers no defense. Hashimi uses Yusuf and Gulnaz, Zeba’s mother as conduits to the world outside the prison and the struggle to give Zeba justice. They seem to sum up the complexity of contemporary life in Afghanistan with Yusuf trying to work the system using the letter of the law and Gulnaz using the only power she has—jadu, the ancient practice of spells.
A House Without Windows is difficult reading for those of us who have not lived in the Middle East. In telling Zeba’s story the levels of hypocrisy, judgment and prejudice against women are so extreme they feel farcical. Even when a woman is a victim, she is not; she owns all the shame and the consequences.
Honor was a boulder that men placed on the shoulders of their daughters, their sisters, and their wives.
This concept is the crux of the novel. Each of Zeba’s fellow prisoners is there for some version of dis-honor. Hashimi shares their stories and even though this is a novel, there is a feeling of fact to each. Beyond their circumstances, she focuses on the women themselves and it is this aspect of the novel that resonates—the relationships, the bond between mother and daughter, the protective love of a mother for her children. A House Without Windows is a tangled tale of evil protected by ignorance and pride, but when the truth becomes clear there is the hope that the women of Afghanistan will prevail.