The main part of the novel follows the intersecting lives of about five characters. The women are all prisoners in their home, the men are all broken. The relationships between everyone is broken too, as if the Taliban had poisoned people's very capacity to connect. I thought this part was vivid and frightening; it was hard to believe that this was taking place in the modern world.
The concept of how such an oppression, corrosive social order erodes the human capacity to connect, have real relationships and experience intimacy with others is, I think, the main theme of the story. And as a woman, I find it hits home as it speaks very intimately to my experience of this world. I think it's very easy for Westerners to fixate on the Taliban as something that happens somewhere else, but what motives them isn't any different than people we have sitting in our Western governments right now. I think a lot of Westerners, especially more privileged ones, prefer to "other" the reality of places like Afghanistan when they need to looking at how our societies are not that different.
The sense of place as strong, but there wasn't much plot, or significant depth to the characters.
I am on the fence about whether the author managed to succeed with this novel. This, I think, relates to that. I am not sure he wanted deep characters but rather characters that represented something more universal. They seem to be somewhere between characters and metaphors, especially the female characters. That said, I do think there is more depth to these characters than what you found. The two female characters carry tremendous amount of pain--both are having their lives stripped slowly away from them--and I think understanding the depth of their pain is the only way to make any sense of the ending
And then, in the last act, one of the men, a jailer, falls in obsessive love with a prisoner who's set to be executed in a few days. There's no reason for his obsession beyond that she's beautiful (she never talks to him), but it's also somewhat believable. Obsessions aren't always rational. It's what happens next that I found completely unbelievable: the man confesses his love of the prisoner to his wife. The wife is happy that the jailer is finally showing emotion - she thought his heart had been permanently closed to the outside world - and is so full of joy that she swaps places with the prisoner so that her husband can have a chance at happiness. And he accepts this!
And so I don't know what to make of the book. Had I read it wrong all along, and was the book really about one man's redemption and the women were just plot devices? Does the author really believe that a woman's calling is to sacrifice her life for her husband
I can't say if the ending works or not. There's a lot of the prose and elegance of this novel that I really loved, but the ending is...messy. Part of me is horrified at the idea of Mussarrat, a disabled woman, being sacrificed like this and I don't like Atiq's infatuation with Zunaira. So what to make of this mess? Well, I've given it a lot of thought.
For starters, I don't think anyone is redeemed and the ending is horribly tragic for everyone.
One thing I have been kicking over a lot is what swallows mean for the author. They are clearly a symbol of women living under the Taliban, but I'm not fully sure I understand what that symbols means. To my Western mind, swallows are birds, and birds often symbolize freedom. But the women here clearly are not free, so I can only see "swallows" as paradoxical symbolism--a symbol that reveal a truth by being a paradox of itself.
I need to break down a few things here to explain my thinking:
Musarrat is dying--her illness, if I'm not mistaken, is not really described beyond the understanding that it's the result of enduring extreme hardships like poverty and scarcity in a war-torn country, so that suggests to me her illness has symbolic meaning in the story. She's inescapably suffering as result of the world she lives in, a world damned by the power struggles of men. And Atiq, the one man closest to her, has no power to help her either.
Zunaira is in her own way trapped by men's power struggles--she had a much more fortunate life than Musarrat before the Taliban yet she still loses everything because of the Taliban and now her world is nothing but an endless prison. She cannot fight it and she cannot escape it. And the man closest to her, Mohsen, ends up viciously attacks her--an attack rooted in his own guilt--and his death ends up putting her life in grave peril.
So we have two entrapped women suffering without end and two pathetic men, both of whom, in the course of the book, participate in the larger mechanics of the Taliban rule that is afflicting suffering on the women and are dragging these women down with them. Mohsen's participation (via the first stoning) destroys his relationship with Zunaira to the point he's violent towards her. Atiq's participation (via his job) is in direct opposition to caring for Musarrat as a husband should.
So what are we to make of Atiq's infatuation with Zunaira? I think we have to really think in terms of symbolism here to not end up just hating the story. Musarrat is a "swallow" that is doomed and knows it, but Zunaira is a "swallow" who has not yet accepted her fate in this world. I think she is suppose symbolize the world where people are still free and can connect with each other, and I think Atiq's reaction to her is the result of his own poverty of the soul. I think the author wants us to see that when woman are oppressed, not only do women yearn to be free, but men also yearn for what women are no longer free to give them. And to Atiq, Zumaira appears to be his chance to have that intimacy and connection that he was denied with Musarrat because the illness (again, symbolic of crushing oppression that denies her her life) that is killing her.
Now, as for Musarrat taken Zunaira's place, I think for Musarrat death is her own way to be free. Granted, I'm a disabled, chronically ill woman who supports right to die, and so I'm admittedly colored by that. But I think for this story, that's what her death is suppose to mean-- it's the only why she can be free. It doesn't redeem Atiq. It's not about Atiq--I think the author fails a little here because of how he has Musarrat justify this to Atiq in a way that seems to be about him. But it is her choice, and I don't think if she had anything to live for she would have made that choice. Maybe if the author centered Musarrat more early on in the story rather than Atiq this would have worked better.
But I am sure the author had no intention of redeeming Atiq. Atiq's been guilty and pathetic since the first chapter--this is the toll the Taliban rule has taken on him--and just how deeply pathetic he is is shown in the last parts of the book. Even though he participates with the scheme that "frees" Zumaira, she doesn't belong to him, and being a "swallow" that means she "flies away." She flees, as that's all she can do. In this case, she disappears behind the burqa and disappears into the flocks of women hidden under identical burqas, with their personhood and individuality hidden away from others, and like all these other women, she takes her capacity to connect with others, and with men in particular, with her as she disappears behind the oppression of the Taliban. So Atiq is left desperately searching for that promise of intimacy he saw in Zunaira but finds nothing but strangers. And that he is so publicly seeking for her -- of rather, for that promise of intimacy--Atig attracts the public anger that results in his death.
Is this a solid story? Again, I'm on the fence. Do I think this novel qualifies as a feminist story, in that it challenges ideas that are made normative by patriarchy, which is shown in extreme form via the Taliban? Yes. Is it solidly so? Maybe not. I find the way he wrote Musarrat to be problematic and messy--she too much a metaphor and not enough character--and that is at the heart of the story's biggest weaknesses. But I think overall the author did well to tell a story that shows how patriarchal oppression destroys both men's and women's ability to connect with others in the way we as human beings need.