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A House Without Windows


A House Without Windows

In Nadia Hashimi’s third novel, A HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS, three narratives connect in modern-day Afghanistan, an ever-so-slowly changing world.

Khanum Zeba is discovered in her backyard by her son, Basir, beside her husband’s body, her hands and dress bloody with a hatchet several feet away. Some villagers crowd in --- to see better, to judge, to affirm or deny the horror --- and her brother-in-law rushes forward, squeezing her neck, forcing her onto the ground. When the police arrive, she is taken to the station, a confession is written, and her blue fingerprint is affixed to the bottom of the document. Determining Zeba’s fate, whether she is innocent or not, is the central story of the novel. 

"Please do not read A HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS with a timer in hand. Slow down.... Remember how each character changes, how each is affected by this single brutal murder, and how one person and one action is of consequence."

Hashimi begins the second piece with an introduction to Yusuf, an Afghan-born lawyer who was raised and educated in New York City after his family escaped from the Taliban in the early 2000s. He went to law school because “he wanted to be always right,” or so he flippantly tells a reporter. The truer statement might be that he wanted to do something positive and make a difference in others’ lives, most especially Afghan lives. Over the protests and concerns of his parents, he returns to Afghanistan and takes on the murder case of Zeba’s husband. He readily admits it does not play out in traditional American legal ways.

The third thread of the novel combines the shockingly harsh history of women’s roles in Zeba’s village and the intriguing backstory of Gulnaz, Zeba’s mother. Her mystical powers are legendary, and she has used them for good and evil, for her own benefit and for the benefit of others. Her beauty, especially her Afghan emerald green eyes, is legendary. Because she stands apart from the ordinary, she has been at odds with Zeba much of her life. However, when she comes to the prison to visit her, she offers some comfort and wisdom: “Time passes differently through a woman’s body. We are haunted by all the hours of yesterday and teased by a few moments of tomorrow.” Daughter learns from mother, and mother from daughter. Family secrets are oppressive and divisive; it is difficult but healing to reveal them.

Zeba is taken to Chil Mahtab, a women’s prison in Kabul, the house without windows. The women’s plights are the most telling piece of how little has changed regarding women’s lives in 2016. Latifa stays in the prison because it is safer inside than outside. Mezhgan has committed zina (any sex outside marriage is zina), and her single chance for respectability and life itself is hinged on getting her fiancé's family to accept her. Zeba slowly becomes trusted and respected, and she uses some of the magic from her mother’s old bag of tricks to help the women. Zeba’s days in prison turn into weeks, then into months as her attorney Yusuf runs into wall after wall of tradition and bias.

One of the charming pieces of the novel is the two-line poetry that Zeba creates while in prison: the little poems sum up, ridicule, soothe. One of Yusuf’s approaches to freeing Zeba from the murder charge was a plea of insanity, and her response captures the anguish and outrage that she and the other women endure: “A woman indignant must suffer from madness/That ignorant guess is the cause of our sadness.” The other prisoners caught the bug of rhyming and, in an unprecedented show of unity and defiance, wrote their own poems just before Zeba goes for sentencing: “These hardheaded men from their pulpits won’t budge./How the world would be different if a woman could judge?”

Please do not read A HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS with a timer in hand. Slow down. Absorb the flavors of rich, plump raisins and the thin green almonds; feel the iciness of the river of crazy as it rushes between Zeba’s toes, then laps at her calves, cold and threatening. Remember how each character changes, how each is affected by this single brutal murder, and how one person and one action is of consequence.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on August 18, 2016

A House Without Windows
by Nadia Hashimi

  • Publication Date: May 16, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062449656
  • ISBN-13: 9780062449658