The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan
by Atia Abawi
Publication date: 2 September, 2014
Philomel, ARC, 300 pages
A novel of love during a time of war by NBC’s Afghanistan correspondent.
Set in present-day Afghanistan, this is the story of two teenagers, one Pashtun and one Hazara, who must fight against their culture, their tradition, their families, and the Taliban to stay together. Told in three rotating perspectives—the two teens and another boy in the village who turns them in to the local Taliban—this novel depicts both the violent realities of living in Afghanistan, as well as the beauty of the land and the cultures there. And it shows that love can bloom in even the darkest of places.
This is an absolute must read not just for teens but for anyone who has lived during the time of America’s War in Afghanistan.
Thank you Carynn Tey from Penguin Books Singapore for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
There are two ways people react to injustice: sadness and anger. I fall into the latter category and hence, reading The Secret Sky had been a very enraging experience. Like the saying goes, “don’t judge a book by its cover”, and this novel is no exception. The Secret Sky was not a love story; it was a tale of truth, no matter how horrendous and painful. Most of us live lives that are relatively uncomplicated and if you have internet access to be reading this right now, you can’t be doing that badly. Especially compared to people like Fatimah and Samiullah, the protagonists of this novel.
Set during current times in a small village in Afghanistan, The Secret Sky might not guarantee an epic love story but will definitely shed light on the corruption in a place where some think murder in the name of religion is actually right and justifiable. Personally, simply sharing Fatimah and Samiullah’s story and letting it be known that there are many cases just like theirs occurring right now warrants this novel at least 4 stars.
As much as I would’ve liked to go on and say the writing, character development, and all the technicalities of the novel were amazing too, it’s unfortunately not so. The narrative had felt rather amateurish and most of the characters lacked depth and traits that would make them unique individuals. Due to the bland characters, the story sometimes didn’t feel like a story; it came off more like the rendering of a scenario where any other star-crossed lovers could’ve replaced Fatimah and Samiullah and there would not have been much of a difference.
Despite that, I did enjoy reading from the perspective of Rashid, the boy who betrayed Samiullah and Fatimah to the villains. Although I hated Rashid with a burning passion at first, the horrifying story of his childhood gave readers more insight to his reasons for having his particular mindset—definitely a lot more interesting than the supposedly protagonists. Moreover, the fact that Rashid had unwittingly taken actions resulting in horrifying consequences made him a lot more human than Fatimah and Samiullah, both of which were a tad too saintly.
Even though the plot had been pretty predictable, Abawi had been merciless when it came to the savagery of the Taliban and even between family members. Prior to reading The Secret Sky, I had never fully comprehended how much honor meant to families such as those portrayed in the book. Especially to one who never really cared what others said, it shocked me that anyone, let alone a whole community could still value petty things like a “good” family name so highly in this modern age.
All in all, if you’re looking for a touching love story filled with romance, I would recommend looking elsewhere (I had my doubts about Fatimah and Samiullah’s relationship as its development had quite a few issues). However, if you want to know more about the atrocities happening in Afghanistan today and maybe even get a glimpse into the minds of potential terrorists, look no further. There’s no doubt you’ll feel anger and pity while reading The Secret Sky but maybe—just maybe—you might also come to understand how perfectly normal and good people get dragged into the messy world of terrorism and greed.