In her fourth novel for adults, Nadia Hashimi details a life upended by Afghanistan’s 1978 Saur Revolution.
Ten-year-old Sitara Zamani lives a charmed life among the rose gardens of Kabul’s presidential palace. Her father, as President Daoud Khan’s most trusted adviser, buoys the existing government—and his family—with his steady wisdom. This all changes the night Sitara leaves her bed to look at the stars, and in doing so evades a coup led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Sitara’s family is murdered in the coup, but at the whim of a dodgy palace guard named Shair, an American diplomat and a vanload of hippies, Sitara begins a new life as “Aryana” in the United States.
Sparks Like Stars is not a novel that looks away from pain. Hashimi has taken an inventory of the toll childhood instability takes on a person’s emotional well-being. After her flight from Kabul, Aryana retreats further into herself as she is funneled into the American foster care system. She eventually becomes a physician (like the author), and when a man named Shair becomes her patient, memories of the coup overwhelm her. Aryana must decide how to best treat a dying man who may have murdered her family, and whether searching for their remains in Afghanistan will bring her the peace she has never found.
Hashimi’s novel conveys its themes through a mix of frank and poetic language. Maxims from Aryana’s father operate as a bridge between past and present, which at times feels contrived given the first-person narration. Still, Aryana is an intriguing character who likens herself to Anastasia Romanov, whose disputed escape from her family’s political execution becomes a kind of obsession for Aryana.
When viewing ancient artifacts from Ai-Khanoum, a city lost to time, Aryana’s father says, “People cannot imagine their civilization will not endure forever. Pride is blinding.” This idea is woven throughout the novel, creating implications for not only the progressive Daoud regime but also the unfolding Cold War and the decadeslong American presence in Afghanistan. The politics of Sparks Like Stars are necessarily close to the heart of its heroine, whose fate is largely dictated by the whims of government agents. The novel is an elegiac tribute to family and civilization—fragile collective entities that should be cherished while they still hold.