Afghanistan, Atiq Rahimi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Patience Stone’ by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone
Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by Polly McLean.

If you want to read an important book about the subjugation of women, then put Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone on the top of your list. This novella, first published in France in 2008, won the Goncourt Prize that same year. It’s a rather shocking and deeply affecting read, and I know it will stay with me for a long time to come.

A bedroom confession

The Patience Stone is set in a single room in a war-torn city in Afghanistan. Outside, gun fire and explosions can be heard, along with the hurried footfalls of men carrying weapons, but inside the room it is largely quiet.

The room is small. Rectangular. Stifling, despite the paleness of the turquoise walls, and the two curtains patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight against a yellow and blue sky. Holes in the curtains allow the rays of the sun to reach the faded stripes of a kilim. At the far end of the room is another curtain. Green. Unpatterned. Concealing a disused door. Or an alcove.

In this room there is a man and a woman: the man is in a coma, with a bullet in his neck, and he is lying on his back under a dirty white sheet, his gaze fixed on the ceiling; the woman — his wife — sits beside him, feeding him through a tube, lubricating his eyes with drops and all the while praying for his recovery.

When the unnamed woman is not praying, she fills the time and the silence by talking to her husband — she treats him like a “patience stone” to which you:

“…tell all your problems to, all your struggles, all your pain, all your woes… to which you confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone. You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces.”

And what a confession this woman makes. Initially her voice is timid and afraid  — “Don’t abandon me, you’re all I have left” — but it grows increasingly angry as she comes to terms with the fact that the pair have been abandoned by her husband’s family. Only her aunt, an outcast herself, has stood by her and helps looks after the couple’s two young daughters.

But as the story progresses, this rage is then turned towards her husband, as she recalls their life together — the first three years of their arranged marriage were spent apart while he fought in the war — and the ways in which he has abused her — sexually, physically and emotionally — ever since their marriage was consummated.

Women as second-class citizens

On the whole, the woman’s tale is largely a sexual confession, where her needs have been wholly subjugated by her husband’s desires. She rails against the way she has been treated as nothing more than an object for her husband’s sexual gratification, then made to feel dirty and whore-like for daring to menstruate.

Her bold revelations might be heart-breaking, painful and courageous — they get increasingly more fevered and explosive as the story progresses, she’s definitely no puritan and there are hints she’s becoming unhinged — but they give voice to millions of women who have suffered at the hands of male brutality and patriarchal tribal customs throughout the centuries.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what goes on in this room between the silent man and the uncensored woman is a microcosm of society in Afghanistan today, where women are second-class citizens, denied basic rights to education, health care and personal independence. For that reason, reading this novella filled me with a slow-burning fury, not dissimilar to the reaction I had when I read The Bookseller of Kabul in 2005.

A confronting read

There’s no doubt that The Patience Stone  shines a light on some confronting and challenging truths — about war, religion, men, sex and misogyny — but it’s done in a rather understated way.

Its gentle, stripped-back prose is possessed of astonishing power, perhaps because it reads like a play, complete with stage directions — “In the street we hear someone shouting Halt! And then a gunshot. And footsteps, fleeing” — and a dramatic monologue. I kept thinking it would make a terrific film because it felt so visual and emotional — and then I discovered it was made into one last year:

I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to rent it, but it’s definitely gone on to my wish list. If it’s anything like the book, it will be compelling, intimate — and unforgettable.


Author, Caitlin Moran, Ebury Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘How To Be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran


Non-fiction – paperback; Ebury Press; 320 pages; 2011.

Caitlin Moran is one of those journalists incapable of writing a dull sentence. I used to read her columns in The Times before they went behind a pay-wall and always found them hugely entertaining and very witty. How To Be A Woman, which has won numerous accolades including Book of the Year at the Galaxy Book Awards, is exactly what I expected: a wise and humorous read told in Moran’s not-so-underrated style.

Part memoir, part rant

The title might suggest that How To Be A Woman is a self-help guide to feminism but that’s not really what this book is about. Instead — as the blurb helpfully points out — it is part memoir, part rant. It is essentially a comic look at what it is like to be female in the 21st century. But underpinning the humour is a quite serious agenda which suggests many women are still not free to be themselves — mainly because they are too busy keeping up appearances.

But this is no dry text book. Moran might structure her feminist topics into thematic chapters — fashion, sex, work, marriage, motherhood, abortion and so on — but she uses her own life as the narrative thread which weaves them together.

She is incredibly frank, forthright and self-deprecating throughout as she details her childhood growing up on a council estate in Wolverhampton, the eldest of eight children, in which she was fat, frumpy and friendless. She then charts her premature adulthood, when as a precocious 16-year-old she moved to London to take up a job on weekly music magazine Melody Maker, before love, marriage, children and journalistic stardom followed.

Views on motherhood

I was particularly delighted to read her chapter on women who do not have children, either by choice or circumstance, because this is a subject that is rarely discussed. And when it is, the women  who can’t have children are painted as pathetic victims and those who choose not to have them are branded as selfish cows.

Men and women alike have convinced themselves of a dragging belief: that somehow women are incomplete without children. Not the simple biological ‘fact’ that all living things are supposed to reproduce, and that your legacy on earth is the continuation of your DNA — but something more personal, insidious and demeaning. As if a woman somehow remains a child herself until she has her own children — that she can only achieve ‘elder’ status by dint of having produced someone younger. That there are lessons that motherhood can teach you that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere — and every other attempt at this wisdom and self-realisation is a poor and shoddy second. Like mothers can get a first in PPE at Oxford, whilst the best the childless can manage is a 2:1 from Leicester de Montford University.

And I really loved her one-liners — although, if truth be told, every sentence is a one-liner. For example, how I chuckled when I read her views on women getting older, particularly this sentence, which refers to the BBC’s female newsreaders being sacked:

Sorry to mention this again — we strident feminists do go on about this — but Moira Stewart and Anna Ford got fired when they hit 55, whilst 75-year-old Jonathan Dimbleby slowly turns into a fucking wizard behind his desk.

Like an intimate chat

Much of what Moran outlines in How To Be A Woman is not new to me, but I found it incredibly refreshing — and somewhat surprising — to find someone whose views on so many different topics chimes exactly with mine. In many ways reading this book was like having an intimate chat in a pub over a pint or two — minus the hangover and the cost! I reckon Caitlin Moran and I could be great buddies, although her constant need to make every single thing she says funny might wear thin after awhile.

But I expect there will be many people far younger than me who will read it and learn something about themselves and perhaps question why they’re expected to behave in a certain manner. And for that reason I’d urge everyone — men and women alike — under the age of 40 to read this book. Yes, it’s occasionally crude; yes, there is swearing in it and yes, sometimes she is agonisingly, wincingly honest. But even if you don’t agree with all Moran’s views, I doubt you’ll read a funnier non-fiction book this year.

As an aside, the editing of this book was patchy in places — rogue commas, missing commas and a real clunker of a spelling mistake on page 306 of my edition in which the word “root” was used instead of “route”. I hope subsequent smaller-format paperback editions might have put this right.

Author, Book review, Duckworth, M.G. Durham, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘The Lolita Effect’ by MG Durham


Non-fiction – paperback; Duckworth; 282 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Full points to the clever people at Duckworth who sent me this book on the basis they’d seen my review of Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and thought this one would also interest me, because it treads similar territory. 

The Lolita Effect is an eye-opening account of how the mass media and the multinationals have created a huge juggernaut which targets young girls. This juggernaut convinces them they need to portray a certain image — usually blonde and blue-eyed, slim and hyper-sexual — and then sells them the products to achieve that look. This “brainwashing” begins from a very early age (as soon as they can play with dolls that conform to these stereotypical looks or use toys, such as pole-dancing kits, that show them how to behave sexually without realising or understanding the consequences) and continues right into middle-age.

The author argues that this “conspiracy” serves to create consumers for life — women who will buy anti-ageing creams, high-fashion, diet products and so on, all in the pursuit of becoming “beautiful” and “desirable”.

Anyone with any modicum of media savvyness will already know this, or at least be mindful of it. Yet I suspect there may be millions of people out there who haven’t clocked the way the media works to sell products and unattainable images of female beauty.

I work in magazine publishing, albeit far from the glossy end of the market, and I still remember how shocked I was the first time I visited a repro house and was taken on a tour of the “retouching room” where cover images of celebrities and Hollywood A-listers were photoshopped to death. In one example, Jennifer Aniston’s head was put on another person’s body, her breasts were hugely enhanced by the wave of a Photoshop brush, her hair was made blonder, her eyes bluer, her skin smoothed to the point of being impossibly perfect.

The feminist in me was outraged, because although I knew that images got reworked (this was in the late 1990s), I hadn’t realised just how much they were reworked. I suddenly wanted to make it compulsory for every school girl under the age of 12 to visit one of these places to see the truth behind the lies they were being sold.

MG Durham is herself a media practitioner: as well as being a journalist she is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, and she’s made a career out of researching the relationship between adolescent girls and the mass media. This book, written in a hugely accessible style, is designed to show parents, teachers and even young girls themselves how the media is sexualising girls at a younger and younger age, the unhealthy effects this creates, and what can be done to address it.

Durham’s theory is that there are five myths the media perpetuates. She argues that once you know these myths and how they are designed to impact on females, then you are in a better position to ignore and/or debunk those myths. Durham is very careful not to call for media censorship, nor does she take the moral highground about girls’ sexuality. This is a sensible, even-handed and hugely realistic approach. Durham never preaches, but she does provide very good, practical advice.

As well as examining each of the myths in turn, Durham also offers hands-on exercises that teachers, social workers and parents can use to discuss these issues with children and teenagers.

My only real problem with The Lolita Effect is that much of the evidence presented is largely anecdotal (and with an American bias), and the research conducted, say for instance on how teenage magazines buy into these so-called myths, is purely based on content analysis. How much more illuminating it would have been for Durham to interview the editors of these publications to ask them to justify their policies and outline their decision-making processes about what to run and what not to run.

Admittedly The Lolita Effect is not a cheery read; it made me downright angry in places, and had me nodding my head in agreement at others. If you have children, whether they be boys or girls, I would strongly urge you to read it. It’s alarming, but it’s also educational, and you might just discover a few tips on preventing your daughters/nieces/female friends from turning into unhappy, unfulfilled, two-dimensional, hypersexualised women.