Lipstick in Afghanistan by Roberta Gately joins a growing number of books set in Afghanistan, both fiction and nonfiction.
While I would not compare Lipstick in Afghanistan to The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns, I do believe that the same readers might enjoy it. This is a lighter treatment of the troubles in Afghanistan, from the perspective of an American. For teens who are interested in the culture, but shy away from the tragedy in Hosseini’s books, this is a good choice. It could also provide a gateway to those books. Born under a Million Shadows by Andrea Busfield (Holt, 2010) is another recommended recent novel set in Kabul, from the perspective of a young Afghan boy.
Among nonfiction, the subject matter brings to mind Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez (Random House, 2007). And Rodriguez’s first novel is coming out later this month, titled A Cup of Friendship (Ballantine). It takes place in a Kabul coffee house.
I am also looking forward to reading The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a nonfiction title being published by Harper in March which also takes place in Taliban-era Kabul.
The most popular nonfiction book on Afghanistan in my library is My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban by Latifah (Hyperion, 2001). This is a memoir written by a girl who was 16 when the Taliban took over Kabul. (She uses the name Latifah in order to maintain anonymity.) It makes a great booktalk, and is not intimidating in length.
GATELY, Roberta. Lipstick in Afghanistan. 284p. Gallery. 2010. Tr $15. ISBN 978-1-4391-9138-5. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School–Danger permeates this enthralling coming-of-age novel about recent nursing-school graduate Elsa Murphy, who is spending a year in Afghanistan, providing medical services to amputees and starving children. At times, she seems naïve, offering easy solutions to the Afghans she meets. For example, she offers the gift of lipstick to Parween, a widow whose husband was killed by the Taliban. Readers might question why lipstick makes a difference to a woman who isn’t allowed to wear it in public; however, it marks the beginning of Parween’s self-actualization. When one overlooks the vague, confusing quality of some of the novel’s ideas, there is much to appreciate here. After all, who doesn’t admire a woman who wears bold red lipstick while dodging bullets and draining shrapnel wounds? Teens will applaud the idea that a woman can be good, brave and beautiful–all at once. Lipstick serves as a tangible symbol of female strength and friendship. Parween is a strong character in her own right, and her friendship with Elsa seems genuine, so readers will forgive the novel’s oversimplified ideas about cross-cultural exchange. This novel offers a rare glimpse of Afghanistan from a fresh perspective. The book is based on the author’s own experiences as a nurse there, and the sights and smells she describes feel utterly real. Students will learn a great deal about the country’s culture and history by reading this page-turner.– Jess deCourcy Hinds, Bard H.S. Early College, Queens, NY