A House without Windows, Nadia Hashimi.
A House without Windows, Nadia Hashimi. William Morrow (2016), 432 pages
5 stars — Favorite
A wise and suspense-filled story by an Afghan American woman about a village woman accused of murdering her abusive husband and the struggle of her and those around her for justice and dignity.
Nadia Hashimi’s parents left Afghanistan in the early 1970s, before the Soviet invasion. She herself was born and raised in New York and New Jersey and didn’t visit the country until 2002. Her extended family, however, kept the Afghan culture alive for her, regaling her with stories and characters which have made their way into her books. She graduated from Brandis University with degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Biology and then earned a medical degree. Now she lives in Maryland with her husband and four children and practices pediatric medicine. She has written two previous novels about Afghanistan, both of which have been well received.
At the center of A House without Windows, is Zeba, an ordinary wife and mother in an Afghan village, who was found in her courtyard with her abusive husband dead and herself covered with blood. She seemed to be the obvious murderer, but she is unwilling to explain what had happened. Yusuf, a young lawyer assigned to defend her, had moved to America with his family as a child, but had returned to Afghanistan with the very American idea that an individual could make a difference. However, he is frustrated by her unwillingness to talk. In jail, Zeba became part of a vibrant group of women prisoners. Bits of the larger stories about her and her family slowly emerge, and surprises complicate what had seemed like a simple story.
Zeba and the other women are portrayed as strong and creative, having survived a host of troubles of their own. I found it a nice touch that many of the prison guards and administrators were women. Yusuf and some of the other men are also positively presented, but the women in the book agree that men at best incompetent and at worse cruel. Zeba’s mother explains to her that her brother and the lawyer both want to help her, “but they are men, and man can only see what they can hold in their hands…. It’s not their fault; it’s how they were designed.” Theirs is a society where a woman’s testimony has only half the value of a man’s. The jail is full of women arrested for acts vaguely defined as “sex outside of marriage” which can mean anything from talking back to a male authority or leaving her father’s home. No wonder they all believe “ “What a burden it is to be born a woman.”
The complicated relationship of Zeba and her mother is another theme that is well developed in the novel. Zeba’s mother was a powerful, controlling woman who got what she wanted, even using magic to do so. Zeba “believed her to be someone larger than life and invincible. That’s what made it acceptable to push her away. Her mother was not frail or needy. She was an island of autonomy even when the world around here was at war.” Although Zeba had distanced herself from her mother, when she is in danger of being executed mother and daughter try to connect only to face the limits of their power. “Why were she and her mother like two survivors floating on rafts, reaching out for each other only to be bounced apart by wave after tumultuous wave?”
A House without Windows is an excellent book, well-written and full of suspense and surprises. Hashimi is the kind of writer who excels at compressing complicated situations into a few sentences. She has written a provocative book and one that may annoy male readers. But her book is an important one that pushes us to consider the impact of abusive relationships. I recommend it highly.