“You see, there is something more contagious than leprosy that people fear catching through contact with the sufferer, and that’s misfortune.”
Alabaster in the title refers to the perfume jar that is given to Maryam’s father, one that should have boded well for her family’s future. Instead, her father contacts leprosy and is shunned as well as exiles from his village. Early on, it is understood how life went for women in bygone times in the middle east. They mustn’t shame their family and especially their husband. Abuse isn’t just expected but some women get seem downright gleeful when a woman is beaten for her behavior, more often than not something unintended. The rules are severe, the women are loaded with chores and restrictions and men are judge and jury in the household and outside of it. The shame Maryam and each member of her family suffers because of a disease their father contacted is heartbreaking. The sisters are stained by everything that happens to them, but they will find a way out of a dismal future. A story of abuse, loss, but one too of hope. Misfortune is a disease itself, as if by shunning families that suffer you can dodge the cruelty of fate yourself. It was easier to think people deserve it, certainly they must have done something to suffer so, than to feel compassion or help
As the reader lives alongside Maryam, the history of how those with leprosy depended on each other when pushed out of their homes changed the attitudes about men and women and what was proper and not. What good are such restrictions in the face of death when you must hold each other up? There is a mysterious doctor who is rumored to cure the sick, the dying. Can her father make it to this blessed doctor in time? What will he have to do with Maryam? Early on their brother begins to become overbearing, with the same dismissive attitude towards women. Despite abandonment by their brother in the face of shame, the sisters will find their strength. Strange in a culture where men are in charge, the two women are left on their own to face the ostracism and fight for survival. With her sister’s skill and her own cleverness, the two will strive to survive out from under the rule of bad men.
The story is historical fiction, but the voiceless women are still true in modern times. Thinking about keeping women in line, placing the burden of shame for a whole family on females is horrifying. When Maryam is shunned later these line say so much. “This shunning should bother me, but I prefer it to the constant fear I lived under with Ishmael. It was like holding my breath all the time and now I’ve let it out and can take fresh air into my lungs.” Abuse in any culture suffocates, more so in places where you can be stoned to death for transgressions committed against you. There was a tenderness though too that Maryam’s father had for both she and her sister, and too he knows his daughter’s are more upstanding than his son. This ideal that fathers are incapable of love in such cultures is absurd. It is easy to blame the culture, the arrogance that we are advanced but really a woman can be beat down even in countries with every freedom. There is a sisterhood that is global, and suffering anywhere should touch us all.
Too, that neighbors and friends keep such severe watch over each other’s actions is why bad things happen. Some people feel they are the eye of God, at ready to point out another’s failings and want punishment, but too are those who love and help one another, even at great risk. This novel is for anyone that enjoys historical fiction, it is rich with characters and atmospheric. Leprosy isn’t something I think about beyond seeing the occasional horror story on medical shows, but there was a time it was on everyone’s minds, fear of contagion, family members ripped away… that alone made the story heavy with sorrow.
Publication Date: November 18, 2o16