This week we move out of my usual SF and Fantasy fare into a novel that explores conflict in Afghanistan with Susan Froetschel’s Fear of Beauty. Her essay on the novel is really interesting and she is also sharing an excerpt with you.
Now, let me get out of the way so you can read about her Favorite Bit?
If I must choose one favorite bit from what’s now my favorite novel, then it must be a section midway through Fear of Beauty. Sofi dwells on a last memory of her father from many years before when she left her childhood home. She doesn’t know her age, because birthdays are not celebrated in rural Afghanistan, and didn’t understand that she was heading off for an arranged marriage, never seeing her parents again.
Before committing to a mystery set in rural Afghanistan, I headed to the nearest university library in and explored old books from the 1920s and 1930s, published after the country had shed British influence and declared independence. The photographs of steep mountains, productive and golden fields, intrigued and inspired my writing. Since 2001, I had already delved into reading news stories that describe a way of life with minimal education for girls, parents selecting marriage partners for their children, the constant hardship of providing food for families without electricity, running water or other conveniences.
I also sorted through my own childhood memories and could imagine a mother treasuring the last memory of her father and a two-day donkey trip two decades before – partly because my own mother died when I was eight years old and because I’m now old enough to realize that daily routines, our surroundings, can change without warning.
Love for family is an emotion shared by every culture and centers on caring about another’s future, shared or not. Even when Louis May Alcott wrote “Love is a great beautifier,” in Little Women, she was describing Meg at work, preparing for marriage. Despite their inevitable separation and a lack of education, Sofi’s father wants to ensure a secure future for his oldest daughter. He taught her the skills to raising a variety of crops and, before they part, he hands over a small package of bulbs, advising her to start her own secret garden that can contribute to her family’s comfort.
This section (pages 190 to 193) flowed, easy to write as I recalled many pleasant childhood memories with my father. Children enjoy spending time with fathers, so often away, busy at work or traveling. Any time alone with parents, away from other siblings, is special, too. I still remember my dad taking me to the library every other weekend, letting me borrow as many books as allowed. An accountant, he taught me how to log canceled checks in a ledger, and we sat on the floor and sorted out hundreds of cancelled checks every month or so. One Christmas, he gave me a tape recorder for pretend interviews, him as silly politician to my role as broadcast journalist. He got excited about school assignments, encouraging me to work on them early, in third grade handing over scraps of plywood – showing me how to sand the wood and add hinges for a special book-report cover.
Parents can’t be sure which events will transform into lasting memories, and there’s no one way for loving parents to prepare their children for the future. In any society, feelings run strong about parenting methods. Some steer their children toward specific careers, and others are more hands off. For some parents, education is a chore to endure, and others encourage curiosity and a love for lifelong learning – even when no teachers or schools are available. Strict parents can push their children to achieve and confront risk.
Children observe their parents, their attitudes about work and life, their approaches to conflict and problem-solving. The methods may or may not pass down through families. Children taught to learn on their own can sense other possibilities, and every day make decisions about whether to abide by a parent’s values or defy them. Parents often don’t know what memories they’re making or how their respective societies have reinforced the patterns.
Back to Fear of Beauty… other men of the village urge Sofi’s father to leave without saying farewell, and watching from a window, she knows that she’ll never see her father again. The section closes with Sofi’s thought: “At that moment, I realized that the men had no more control than the women do.” At that moment, the protagonist concludes that she can no longer wait for her husband or the men of her village to take action and prevent crimes being plotted near her village.
Childhood memories, sibling rivalries, parental reactions to young love, a family’s quest for happiness, influence or wealth – all are part of the foundation for lifelong contentment or resentment and serve as motivations for many a crime in mystery novels and real life – whether in the United States or Afghanistan.
And if we don’t completely agree with how we were raised as children – strict or flexible, curious or closed, with emphasis on education, wealth or strength – sometimes we discover that we have more in common with strangers than those closest to us.
From Fear of Beauty (Seventh Street Books, 2013). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
My father had delivered me to Laashekoh years ago. I lost exact count. My mother and the other women in the family dressed me in colorful clothes and arranged my hair with a pretty veil saved for my special day. The family laughed and cheered, praising my strength, disposition, and good fortune.
I was the oldest of my siblings, and the memories feel odd with every passing year as my parents remain young and healthy. During that happy celebration, it had never occurred to me that it would be my last memory of them.
With tears in her eyes, my mother embraced me and my father lifted me gently to our donkey. The younger children danced and waved, and I waved in return as my father and I set off on a grand adventure.
At some point during the trip, my father assured me that I was one of the lucky ones, moving on to a village with good farmland. My male cousin was only six years older and his family promised that they would wait at least a few months before we began our life together or thought about having children. And I smiled with joy because time with my father was all that mattered to me.
The trip took more than two full days, with only a few stops. The last stop was not far from the tight trio of mountains my father had pointed to as our destination. Always thoughtful, he chose the beautiful scene as a place to sit, drink water, and have one last talk alone.
I have something to give you, and you must tuck it away until you can find the right place for planting. He pulled a package from his pocket and slowly unwrapped it. These are yours, to remind you of home.
Inside were tiny corms that burst into the flowers and cloaked a nearby hill in purple every autumn. With every year, the cloak expanded, as my parents dug up the green strands and separated the corms, spreading them into other nooks. In the fall, the children helped my mother pluck the golden threads from delicate blossoms that emerged only for a day. I accepted the packet and should have been delighted. But I sensed a serious break in the life I had always known. There was no talk of my returning home, and I dreaded not seeing the cloak of purple near my home again.
My father put his hand to my chin and gave directions: They’re not many, and they are our secret. Tuck them in your bundle. That’s a good girl. Keep them until you find a good place away from other people. Plant them wisely, and remember how we took care of them together as a family.
Dread of the future filled me, and I could not speak.
The family we are meeting. They are kind people. In a few years the threads will help your family.
Then he followed my mother’s directions, smoothing my hair, brushing dust away from the shalwar, adjusting my chaadar. My happiness returned, and I smiled at him, because fathers did not typically bother with such details. As he returned me to the donkey, tears showed in his eyes. At that moment, I hoped he might change his mind and decide to take me home. But with nothing more to say, we continued on our way.
As we rode into the village, the donkey was weary, and my father was quiet. We stopped at a large house, and women immediately pulled me inside and covered me in new clothes that were big, soft, and warm. Someone showed me the kitchen where I would work and the bed that
I’d share with my cousin’s sisters.
Shhh, one of the younger girls whispered and pulled me close to the window where we could watch my father talking with her father and Parsaa’s, too. My father handed over some bills and a bundle of embroidered sashes, in the fiery colors of gold, orange, red. The two men held each other’s shoulders and kissed.
She’s a good girl, my father said, the most intelligent of my children, and you know me well enough that this praise is not false. I had never heard my father express such an opinion before and dipped my head to hide my pride.
Parsaa’s father offered mutual assurances. She’ll be a great help. The other women in the village will help her get settled.
I must leave before sunrise. Should I say farewell to her tonight?
Let us explain, the older man said. She is with the other girls, so why upset her? She fits in well already and will forget her old life soon enough. Upset, my father looked toward the house, but did not see us peering into the dark. You’re young. Parsaa’s father laughed and put a hand to my father’s shoulder. This is your first daughter. The other men in your village should have warned you.
Pressing my hands against the mud and rock walls, I yearned for my father to change his mind, furious he didn’t retort that his daughter would never forget. But he nodded slowly and walked away, the sweet donkey nudging at his shoulder. To think I’d never pat that animal’s head again or chase our chickens or sit at my mother’s feet stung at me. I wondered if the donkey would forget about me, too. Would my father ride home, and forget, enjoying life with my mother and younger brothers and sisters?
I could not help feeling resentment, but turned to my new friend, pretending not to care. Girls had always left our village, and the boys stayed. That was the village’s custom, and I knew that I would not have this friend for long.
At that moment, I realized that the men had no more control than the women do.
Fear of Beauty is Susan Froetschel’s fourth novel. She taught writing and journalism at Yale and Southern Connecticut State University, and is now a consulting editor at YaleGlobal Online, a free public-service magazine about globalization, defined as the interconnectedness of our world through people, products and ideas. The book is published by Seventh Street Books.