Book Review: The Honey Thief

honeyMany thanks to Viking Penguin for sending a copy of The Honey Thief; a narrative that warms your heart as it shares a timeless side of Afghanistan.

The Honey Thief at first may feel like a series of self-contained short stories, but upon further delving, the reader quickly appreciates that it is an interwoven love letter to the Hazara people.  The lore of The Honey Thief spans thousands of years, and illuminates the pain and triumph of people who love their land and their traditions.  The book hinges on a long history of oral storytelling among the Hazara, and offers a glimpse of true spirit in what can be a very harsh world.

Most importantly, what of the mystery of our Afghanistan?  Is there not great beauty in the mystery?  For we are a very mysterious people, we Afghans.  We come from the long-ago, our roots go down so deep in the sand and soil and rock that we can be said to be as much a part of the land as the gundy trees and marsot bushes; we are both wild and gentle, full of anger and full of love.  (p. 253)

The Afghani culture is rich with myths and folklore.  The stories that Najaf Mazari shares in The Honey Thief may be from many years ago, but their messages are still relevant today.  This is what struck me while I was reading; that while these tales may have been passed down over generations, their lessons are still beautifully powerful.

It’s difficult to say which of the chapters were my favorites.  I had several.  I found two to be especially poignant: The Wolf Is the Most Intelligent of Creatures, and The Music School.  The Wolf chapter shared a remarkable tale of a boy, his grandfather and a wolf.  I won’t offer too much detail, but will say that I had tears in my eyes at the chapter’s close.  I loved the link that was shared between the generations, and especially between man and nature.  It was masterfully told, and I found myself reading sections of it more than once.

The Music School chapter will also stay with me for a very long time.  In this tale, a local “madman” teaches a young mute boy how to play the rubab; a lute-like musical instrument that is native to central Afghanistan.  The bond that forms between teacher and student is inspiring.  When the mute student falls in love with a girl in his village, he’s anxious to share his affection through his mastery of the instrument, but only the teacher will know when he’s ready for such a public performance.  This is a sweet chapter on countless levels, and your heart will soar when the boy finally finds his voice.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share that some of the tales in The Honey Thief are not happy ones.  There are those that will peak your compassion, and those that will stoke your anger.  Stories of warriors, ruthless dictators and death are part of this folklore, and part of the nation’s history.  Similar to life though, inner strength can be found from trials, and no matter what happens, there is always an opportunity to learn.  This message is consistent throughout the novel, and I thank Mazari and Hillman for taking such time and care to impart this wisdom.

In Afghanistan, memories are not made of air and light and colour; memories are made of iron and stone. (p.54)

The close of this book is particularly charming.  Here, you’ll discover an array of observations about the traditional foods of Afghanistan, and some of the comments actually made me laugh out loud.  In addition to describing everything from dill to tabil, there are also wonderful recipes, which invite you to experience the culture first hand.  Truly, this book was full of surprises, and I highly recommend it.

4 heartfelt stars for The Honey Thief.  I’m now anxious to pass this book along, because the stories must be told over and over.