Calling all fans of brilliant, politically-charged dystopian fiction: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah, on sale next week, is not to be missed. Bina, a celebrated Pakistani author and journalist, paints a vivid picture of a world torn apart by war and a brave group of women who revolt against being enslaved in multiple marriages. Publishers Weekly, in a rave STARRED review, praises Before She Sleeps as a "haunting dystopian thriller.... Fans of The Handmaid's Tale won't want to miss this one." Today, we welcome Bina to Library Love Fest for a guest post!
"Here, Bina, I’ve bought you a book, but you can’t read it until you’re older, next year."
The year is 1982 and this is not the thing you say to a ten year old girl, a hungry reader, who devours books the way other children eat candy. She haunts the elementary school library like a ghost, checking out so many books that the librarian has to tell her to slow down. But books are her friends, and she wants to spend as much time as she can with them. They tell her the truth about the world, even when adults want to hide it from her. She is hungry for the truth.
You do not leave the girl sitting on a bench in the mall with the book in a plastic bag while you go to explore the clothes and shoes in the department store. Chalk it down to inexperience, trust, or the belief that a mother’s word is law. Never underestimate even the most obedient daughter’s curiosity, especially when you have said those magic words, You can’t read this book. It is guaranteed to have the opposite effect.
As soon as you leave the girl, telling her you’ll be back in half an hour, she plunges her hand into the plastic bag and pulls out the book. Anne Frank, she reads, The Diary of a Young Girl. A girl like me? she thinks. This can’t be true.
The back cover tells her that Anne Frank lived in the Netherlands during World War 2, and that she and her family, Jews, were forced to go into hiding for two years, until they were betrayed and captured by the Nazis. Their hiding place was the Secret Annexe and this book is the diary that Anne Frank wrote from the ages of 13 to 15. And then she died in a notorious concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, and only her father survived to bring this book to the world.
Anne couldn’t be more different from this girl, a Pakistani Muslim who lives in Karachi, growing up forty years after the events of World War 2. Pakistan can’t be more different than the Netherlands under Nazi Germany, even though a brutal dictator rules the country, repressing the rights of anyone who isn’t a Sunni Muslim male. Still, the girl knows that things are not right where she lives; an undercurrent of bleakness and repression runs through everything. She remembers the day they hanged the Prime Minister; a black day when the roads were empty and the entire country was plunged into mourning.
The words on the back of the diary are already ringing like alarm bells in the girl’s ears. She glances left and right to see if her mother is watching from a secret corner, decides the coast is clear, and begins to read. Dear Kitty, and with just that simple salutation to an imaginary friend, the girl is lost to everything around her. The sounds of the mall fade away, fear of Mother is forgotten (though she keeps one eye out for her mother’s sudden reappearance). The only thing that exists for this girl is the book in her hands and the words on the page.
By the time you return, the girl has already read through one-fourth of the book (she is a fast reader). She keeps dipping into it when you’re not looking, entranced by the tale of the Jewish girl and her family forced into hiding, trying to survive, if not live ordinary lives. It strikes chords in her that she didn’t even know she could hear, living in Pakistan, a country that takes everything from girls and women and gives them little in return.
As the girl grows, leaving childhood behind and becoming a teenager, she too is forced into a type of hiding: from the world of men, from the streets, from public life. She only feels alive at school, the way Anne feels alive when reading a book or writing in her diary.
The girl finishes the book quickly. She thrills to the tale of Anne and Peter’s first kiss, nods vicariously at stories of arguments with mother and sister, misunderstandings with relatives and friends. She is devastated by the ending, even though she knew hw it would turn out before she began reading the book. She has dreams in which she too is a Jewish girl, trapped in a concentration camp. She keeps trying to work out alternative endings where Anne and her family are not captured, or they survive the camps, and Anne grows up to achieve her dream: "When I grow up, I want to be a famous writer."
Later, her mother presents her with the book. "You’re old enough to read it now. I read it when I was in school, and it really affected me. That’s why I wanted you to have it. You’re old enough to understand it now."
But the girl has already understood everything, far beyond what her mother imagines. Because the girl has already started her own diary, addressing each entry, Dear Anne. And she writes, in this diary, "When I grow up, I want to be a famous writer, just like you."
Thanks, Bina! You can pre-order a copy of Before She Sleeps here! The book goes on sale August 7th. Don't miss it!