Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Kabul Beauty School (Deborah Rodriguez)

--The blurb--
"Soon after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a group offering humanitarian aid to this war-torn nation. Surrounded by men and women whose skills–as doctors, nurses, and therapists–seemed eminently more practical than her own, Rodriguez, a hairdresser and mother of two from Michigan, despaired of being of any real use. Yet she soon found she had a gift for befriending Afghans, and once her profession became known she was eagerly sought out by Westerners desperate for a good haircut and by Afghan women, who have a long and proud tradition of running their own beauty salons. Thus an idea was born. With the help of corporate and international sponsors, the Kabul Beauty School welcomed its first class in 2003. Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez stumbled through language barriers, overstepped cultural customs, and constantly juggled the challenges of a postwar nation even as she learned how to empower her students to become their families’ breadwinners by learning the fundamentals of coloring techniques, haircutting, and makeup. Yet within the small haven of the beauty school, the line between teacher and student quickly blurred as these vibrant women shared with Rodriguez their stories and their hearts: the newlywed who faked her virginity on her wedding night, the twelve-year-old bride sold into marriage to pay her family’s debts, the Taliban member’s wife who pursued her training despite her husband’s constant beatings. Through these and other stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style. With warmth and humor, Rodriguez details the lushness of a seemingly desolate region and reveals the magnificence behind the burqa. Kabul Beauty School is a remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom."

--The review--
As armed forces from around the world do battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's only natural that those who have not seen the countries for themselves want an insight into the lives of the people there, which provides a lucrative opportunity for publishers. Just a few of the books centred on the area and its people include The Bookseller of Kabul, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and The Kite Runner. And here, in the form of The Kabul Beauty School, comes another missive with the potential to propel its author to the front of the world stage.

Or so it would be, were it not for the fact that the novel is disappointingly ghostwritten. Rodriguez by no means takes all of the responsibility for her work, publishing a thinly veiled acknowledgement just before the novel commences. This acknowledgement does not stop the fact that it's ghostwritten from being a letdown; but nevertheless, as promised, humour, warmth and genuineness spill over into all aspects of the prose and story, with plenty to incite readers to continue, including highly visual locations and characters and dramatic events. The opening scene is horrifying and bound to make many readers wince, and from the very first page, no details are spared, including the abuse suffered by the beauty school's attendees and the threats that Deborah and the school themselves face.

Deborah herself makes a promising main character, proving herself to be very human, likeable and spirited, without being at all annoying. The storyline does not lack momentum or structure, and this only helps in making the novel accessible to a wide range of readers. The compulsion to know what happens next is likely the key to the book's success: even if a book is ghostwritten, ultimately what many readers want is a lively book with thrust and a decent storyline, and this is, happily, what you get with Rodriguez's effort.

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