The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan
Really horrible things happen in The Secret Sky. I expected some unhappiness, because hello forbidden love, but I wasn’t prepared for just how dark this book got. In light of that, it’s amazing that it didn’t really feel unrelentingly depressing or like a total condemnation of everything that Afghanistan is. Abawi manages to balance the darkness with the light and to convey a sense that dark forces are on top now, but that there’s a lot of good underneath.
The love story between Fatima and Sami is one I would classify as sweet. They manage some light banter, but mostly they’re childhood friends transitioning into love. Unfortunately, they’re not allowed to be together, because Sami is Pashtun and Fatima is Hazara. These two groups differ ethnically and do not get along because of their historical backgrounds. I’m really oversimplifying this, but if you’re curious, google it because I am so not the best person to explain. The two just want to get married, but this desire sets a series of horrible events in motion.
Abawi makes a really unique decision with the storytelling in The Secret Sky. Ordinarily, a romance novel would have just the two points of view, those of the lovers. In this case, there’s a third: Rashid. I was really startled by his perspective at first, because I wasn’t expecting the villain of sorts to have a first person perspective. Rashid catches Sami and Fatima talking and assumes the worst. He believes God will punish them, but wants to help God out by telling on them.
Rashid and Sami were both off at school, but they reacted to the teachings in disparate ways. Rashid fell under the influence of the Taliban and became hugely judgmental. Sami hated the school and that element. These two are cousins and Rashid has always been jealous of Sami, who is the family favorite, so seeing Sami make a mistake he wants to take advantage.
The Secret Sky, however, is not all about the horrors of the Taliban. It’s also about the good people, like the Mullah who helps the two. Islam is not the villain here. I think what makes the story easier to palate in part is Rashid’s character arc. While he caused everything, he also learns throughout the story, and I came to feel a bit sorry for him, because he honestly didn’t expect for things to go the way they did. He was naive and idealistic in the worst way.
The other thing that really made The Secret Sky work for me was the audiobook format. I’m not sure if the writing style would have been my thing, and I can’t comment on how well the perspectives are done. The audiobook narration, however, is fabulous for sure. Both Ariana Delawari and Assaf Cohen do a great job capturing the personalities of their characters. Assaf plays both male roles, but I think he distinguishes between Rashid and Sami well, imbuing Rashid’s voice with rage. This is one of those cases where I think the audiobook really brought the book to life for me.
I highly recommend The Secret Sky, particularly in audiobook format. Those who cry easily in books might want to prepare some tissues.