Fereiba is dealt a cruel twist of fate at birth: her mother dies in labor, and although her father eventually remarries, Fereiba is never truly welcomed by her stepmother. It’s a bit of a Cinderella situation; her stepsisters are doted on and sent to school while Fereiba is kept at home and taught to serve. It’s only by her sheer force of will that moves up in the world, and then her fortunes truly turn when she meets the love of her life, Mahmoud, a man who treats her as his equal and whose family respects her.
While their family lives a comfortable middle-class life in Kabul, trouble is brewing in other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban is rising to power and people are fleeing the country in droves. Fereiba and Mahmoud don’t realize the error of staying until it’s too late, and their lives change drastically once the Taliban reaches Kabul and imposes their new fundamentalist regime. With two children and another baby on the way, they make plans to flee, but as a government employee, Mahmoud is targeted and murdered by the Taliban. Now, it’s up to Fereiba to escape and get her children safely to London. They manage to stay together part of the way but end up being separated in Greece; at that point, her oldest son must figure out how to get to London on his own.
Coincidentally, last summer I traveled through some of the areas that are mentioned in the book. The one that really sticks out is Mashhad, Iran, which is the the middle of the desert and mountains. In the book, an injury happens while the refugees are sneaking across the border from Afghanistan on foot. They get into a van and drive into Mashhad once they reach their destination. Granted, I came in through the Turkemenistan border under the absolute best of circumstances as a tourist, but having driven through that landscape, I can vividly imagine how exhausting and terrifying it would be to get to Mashhad on foot in the dead of night even without the brutal injury that occurs.
Although the book starts out with Fereiba’s coming of age story, there’s a shift about a third of the way into When the Moon is Low. Once Mahmoud is murdered by the Taliban, the responsibility to be the man of the house falls to their only son, fifteen-year-old Saleem. His carefree childhood was already cut short by the Taliban’s ascent to power and he’s robbed of the lessons his father no doubt would have taught him about manhood, but he feels a cultural and familial responsibility to help provide for his mother and siblings. At this point in the book, he is introduced as a second narrator, and the chapters periodically shift points of view between him and Fereiba.
Even though Kabul has been experiencing problems with the Taliban for twenty or so years, and even though there always have been and probably always will be refugees around the world, the refugee narrative in this book feels particularly timely given the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis that kept making headlines last year. Fereiba and her family still have it better than many refugees, but once the family splits up, the book takes readers into refugee camps, though honestly, the individuals they encounter had stories that felt more realistic than the main protagonists’. Essentially, When the Moon is Low leaves readers with a sad but hopeful outlook.
When the Moon is Low was originally published last year and was recently released on paperback by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book is on tour right now, so be sure to check out what other bloggers are saying about it.