Roberta Gately's lyrical and authentic debut novel—inspired by her own experiences as a nurse in third world war zones—is one woman's moving story of offering help and finding hope in the last place she expected.
Gripped by haunting magazine images of starving refugees, Elsa has dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a teenager. Of leaving her humble working-class Boston neighborhood to help people whose lives are far more difficult than her own. No one in her family has ever escaped poverty, but Elsa has a secret weapon: a tube of lipstick she found in her older sister's bureau. Wearing it never fails to raise her spirits and cement her determination. With lipstick on, she can do anything—even travel alone to war-torn Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
But violent nights as an ER nurse in South Boston could not prepare Elsa for the devastation she witnesses at the small medical clinic she runs in Bamiyan. As she struggles to prove herself to the Afghan doctors and local villagers, she begins a forbidden romance with her only confidant, a charming Special Forces soldier. Then, a tube of lipstick she finds in the aftermath of a tragic bus bombing leads her to another life-changing friendship. In her neighbor Parween, Elsa finds a kindred spirit, fiery and generous. Together, the two women risk their lives to save friends and family from the worst excesses of the Taliban. But when the war waging around them threatens their own survival, Elsa discovers her only hope is to unveil the warrior within. Roberta Gately's raw, intimate novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of friendship and a poignant reminder of the tragic cost of war.
Lipstick in Afghanistan is a work of fiction although the author has drawn on her personal experience as an aid worker. The book is a moving story about an American nurse who spends several months in war-torn Afghanistan. She is faced with indescribable violence and destruction, but also with the kindness and resilient spirit of ordinary Afghan people who find the strength to live and love even under the hardest of circumstances.
Elsa finds friendships and even love, without having expected either. Among the ruins and carnage, she sees beauty and hope, sacrifice and tragedy. The female characters in the book take center stage and are much better developed, while the male characters are secondary.
I have to admit I disliked the title until I finished reading the book. To me, the title somehow simplified the inevitable culture shock Elsa experiences and the huge differences between her life in the US and her time in Afghanistan. Then I started thinking about all the metaphors behind this tube of lipstick, and what it means to the women in the novel. For Elsa, as a young nurse in a Boston ER, the lipstick is at first a symbol of her belief that she can rise above the circumstances of her upbringing and overcome the restraints of a dysfunctional family. Elsa's desire to help those less fortunate is born when at 16, she reads an article about Rwandan refugees, the pictures of dying women and children staying with her forever. In a way, that tube of lipstick empowers her to do something about it. During her stay in Afghanistan, that lipstick is a piece of home and her own little rebellion. By wearing it in public, Elsa defies local customs and risks her life because it identifies her as a foreign woman - a courageously foolish act of defiance since she would be of more help if she stayed safe.
For some of the Afghan women Elsa encounters, the lipstick represents their silent defiance of certain restrictions of their culture, a hope that better life is possible, and a touch of beauty they can enjoy only privately.
Lipstick in Afghanistan offers an engrossing story that is not an easy read. It deals - albeit superficially - with horrors I can only imagine. There were topics and characters I wanted to see better covered and others - such as Elsa's love story - I could have done without. Yet, it presents a glimpse into another culture I am mostly unfamiliar with, and I appreciate that.
Disclaimer / Disclosure: Book description and cover art courtesy of the publisher. I received a complimentary copy of the book with no obligation for a positive review. No compensation - monetary or in kind - has been obtained for this post.