Book review: When the Moon Is Low by Nadia Hashimi

When the Moon Is Low by Nadia Hashimi
When the Moon Is Low by Nadia Hashimi
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Almost every day, boatloads of fleeing migrants wash up on the shores of Europe in the hope of finding a better life.

Each has a different story to tell, many are escaping repression, conflict or dire poverty. And sometimes a single, resonant voice can speak volumes for the thousands.

No one knows this better than Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan-American woman now living in suburban Washington, whose remarkable debut novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, served as a powerful and harrowing reminder that in 2011 Afghanistan was declared the worst country in the world to be a woman.

In her gripping new novel, Hashimi revisits Kabul to bring us the heart-rending story of a mother’s dangerous journey across the Middle East and Europe to find a safe haven for her three children.

Through the eyes of one brave and determined woman, and her teenage son who becomes tragically separated from the rest of the family, we explore the plight of terrified Afghans forced to abandon their homeland in a desperate search for freedom and safety.

Raised in fear and superstition by a loveless stepmother, Fereiba never expected to find true happiness in a forced marriage but Mahmoud Waziri’s passion for her is greater than any love she has ever known.

Schoolteacher Fereiba and civil engineer Mahmoud are content in their middle-class world of education, work and family life with their two children in Kabul but when the Soviets retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, their comfortable lives implode.

The country becomes engulfed in war and the Taliban, with their ‘beards and fear,’ rise to power, stripping Fereiba of her career, her friends and her freedom to walk about in public.

Only weeks away from the birth of Fereiba’s third child, Mahmoud is targeted by the new fundamentalist regime for defying Islamic laws, bundled off by sinister men with guns and murdered.

Forced to flee Kabul shortly after giving birth, Fereiba knows she has only one way to survive… she must find a way to cross Europe and reach her sister’s family in England.

With forged papers and help from kind strangers, Fereiba and her children make a dangerous crossing into Iran under cover of darkness. Exhausted and still grieving for her husband, Fereiba manages to smuggle her family into the port of Piraeus in Greece.

But in a busy market square, her 15-year-old son Saleem becomes cruelly separated from the rest of the family. Faced with an impossible choice, Fereiba pushes on with her daughter and baby while Saleem falls into the shadowy underground network of undocumented Afghans who haunt the streets of Europe’s capitals.

Can Fereiba and Saleem find a way to be reunited, and will they ever find a place to call home again?

Hashimi’s novel should be a must-read for all Europeans who find themselves becoming inured to the sight of migrants trying to battle their way to foreign shores. When the Moon Is Low captures all the uncertainty, fear, danger and desperation of a refugee’s life on the run.

Written with elegance, beauty and empathy, Hashimi’s compelling and emotionally charged story gives a voice to all those who dream that one day they will not have to look over their shoulder in fear or ‘sleep on borrowed land.’

Fereiba’s experiences reveal not only the everyday realities and repressions for women living under Taliban rule but the lengths to which these brave individuals are prepared to go to embrace freedom for both themselves and their families.

Ultimately, the sense of loss and despair that pervades this sad tale is offset by a bittersweet sense of hope which allows us to dare to believe that Fereiba and her children might just be among the lucky ones who find the better life they dream of.

(William Morrow, paperback, £12.99)