Silent Hearts

A Novel

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About The Book

“A rich, haunting, immersive story of cultures at the crossroads—deeply moving. A heart-smashingly good read, the kind of novel you’ll want to share with your book club.” —Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Love and Other Consolation Prizes and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

“Highly recommended, especially for fans of Khaled Hosseini.” —Library Journal, starred review

For fans of A Thousand Splendid Suns comes a stirring novel set in Afghanistan​ about two women—an American aid worker and her local interpreter—who form an unexpected friendship despite their utterly different life experiences and the ever-increasing violence that surrounds them in Kabul. ​

In 2001, Kabul is suddenly a place of possibility as people fling off years of repressive Taliban rule. This hopeful chaos brings together American aid worker Liv Stoellner and Farida Basra, an educated Pakistani woman still adjusting to her arranged marriage to Gul, the son of an Afghan strongman whose family spent years of exile in Pakistan before returning to Kabul.

Both Liv and her husband take positions at an NGO that helps Afghan women recover from the Taliban years. They see the move as a reboot—Martin for his moribund academic career, Liv for their marriage. But for Farida and Gul, the move to Kabul is fraught, severing all ties with Farida’s family and her former world, and forcing Gul to confront a chapter in his life he’d desperately tried to erase.

The two women, brought together by Farida’s work as an interpreter, form a nascent friendship based on their growing mutual love for Afghanistan, though Liv remains unaware that Farida is reporting information about the Americans’ activities to Gul’s family, who have ties to the black market.

As the bond between Farida and Liv deepens, war-scarred Kabul acts in different ways upon them, as well as their husbands. Silent Hearts is an absorbing, complex portrayal of two very different but equally resilient women caught in the conflict of a war that will test them in ways they never imagined.

Excerpt

Silent Hearts One
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, AUGUST 2001

Each day she remained unmarried, Farida Basra played At Least.

She turned to the game as she waited for her bus on a street lined with high, bougainvillea-adorned stucco walls that shielded the homes of Islamabad’s wealthy from the envious and resentful. A woman squatted knees to chin beside her, scraping at the filthy pavement with her broom of twigs. Her skin was nearly black from long hours in the sun. Farida drew forward her dupatta, the filmy shawl-like scarf that covered her chest and shoulders. She reminded herself to be thankful.

I may be poor, but at least I’m not a street sweeper.

She stepped back as a family approached on a motorbike. A graybeard husband drove while his young wife clung to him from behind with one arm, cradling an infant with the other. An older child sat in front of the husband, a younger behind the wife. Dust boiled in their wake.

I may still be unmarried, but at least I’m not bound to a man old enough to be my father.

She nodded to a group of schoolgirls in their blue uniforms and white head scarves, and directed the game toward them. No matter what happens to you, at least your education will protect you—that was the mantra her father had taught her. He was a professor whose own professor father had made the mistake of opposing Partition from India and spent the rest of his life in unwilling atonement, opportunities snatched away, income and status dwindling apace.

“But he gave me an education, and I have given you the same,” Latif Basra would tell his daughters. “It is how this family will work its way back to its rightful place. I have done my best. Now it is up to your sons.” At which Farida and her sister, Alia, would study the floor, saving their rebellious responses for whispered nighttime conversations in their bedroom.

Farida let the dupatta slide back to her shoulders and held her head higher, mentally commanding the schoolgirls to see in her what she saw in herself—a professional woman, heading home from her job as an interpreter in the commercial Blue Zone, her satchel stuffed with important papers, her brain buzzing with phrases in English, German, French. Men, her own countrymen and even some foreigners, might disparage her skills and regard her work as little more than a front for prostitution. But those were old attitudes, fast being discarded in Pakistan’s cities, if not the countryside. No longer, as she told her parents nightly and to no avail, did a woman need a husband. Not in the year 2001, when so many things were possible for women.

The girls rounded a corner, laughter floating behind them like the trailing ends of their head scarves. Farida tamped down envy. Old enough for some independence, still too young for the pressure of marriage, the girls had one another. Alia had departed the household for her own marriage, one that so far had produced only daughters, leaving Farida alone with her parents’ dwindling expectations.

She braced herself for another evening involving a strained conversation over indifferent food prepared by a cook who also doubled as a housekeeper. Most of Farida’s inadequate salary went to her parents for household expenses and helped maintain a toehold on the fringes of respectability, even if that proximity had yet to result in a marriage for her.

Her father and mother were too polite to remind Farida of how quickly she had taken to the unimagined freedoms she’d found when the family lived in England several years earlier. She was still paying for it. The fact that her work as an interpreter required constant contact with foreigners did not help her case. Despite her beauty, her parents had not been able to arrange a match with an appropriate civil servant, a teacher, or even a shopkeeper. According to her parents, these groups were the only ones who could accept her level of education along with the faint tarnish to her reputation from the time abroad. It clung to her like a cloying perfume, even after all these years. She had faced a dwindling procession of awkward second cousins and middle-aged widowers, men with strands of oily hair combed over shiny pates, men whose bellies strained at the waists of wrinkled shirts, men whose thick fingers were none too clean, men who nonetheless frowned at her with the same suspicion and aversion with which she viewed them.

By now, despite her mother’s attempts to persuade her otherwise, Farida knew there was no man she could ever imagine herself loving.

Even as her potential suitors drifted away—marrying other girls less beautiful, perhaps, but also less questionable—so did her friends, into arranged marriages of their own, quickly followed by the requisite production of children. Their paths diverged, and she instead hid behind her work.

Farida shouldered her way from the bus and pushed open the gate to the pounded-dirt courtyard. What should she expect from her parents tonight? The silence, her parents retreating after dinner into the solace of books and music? Or more badgering?

“Farida!” Her father burst out of the front door, arms spread wide. He folded her into an embrace, an intimacy he’d not permitted himself since she was a child.

She extricated herself with relief and suspicion, the latter ascendant as she took in his appearance. “Is that a new suit?”

He stepped back and turned in a circle, inviting her admiration for the summer-weight worsted, cut expertly to disguise his sagging stomach and spreading bum. “What do you think of your papa now?”

“What happened to the old one?” A rusty black embarrassment, gone threadbare in the elbows and knees.

He waved a dismissive hand. “Gone.” Sold, no doubt, to a rag merchant.

Farida’s mother appeared in the doorway. She raised her arm in greeting. Wide gold bangles, newly bought, rang against one another, their hopeful notes at odds with her stricken expression. “Your father has a surprise.”

Which was how Farida discovered that for the bride price of some twenty-two-carat jewelry, a knockoff designer suit, and almost certainly a newly fattened bank account, Latif Basra had betrothed his remaining daughter to the illiterate son of an Afghan strongman.

“It will be a disaster.”

Alia, summoned by simultaneous phone calls from her mother and her sister, stood over Farida as she sobbed facedown on her childhood bed. Alia was one of the few women in Islamabad with a driver’s license, and she used it whenever she could, which was rarely. It was after dark, dangerous for a woman to be on the road. For her to be here was a measure of her alarm.

Hearing her sister’s words, Farida sat up and reached for the bookshelves, pulling out volumes at random and flinging them across the room.

“What use will I have for these now?” She raised her voice so that her father, cringing in his study, could hear. She took her gauzy dupatta between her hands and tore at it. “What use have I for this? He’ll hide me away in a burqa.”

She thrust at her sister a leather-bound copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, its title stamped in gilt. “And this! He gave me a special edition of my favorite book, to bring to my life with a man who cannot read, not even his own language, let alone English. And these hideous bangles.” She stripped them from her wrist and threw them at the wall, yelling at her hidden father, “Take these and sell them. Buy yourself another suit!”

Alia kicked the bangles aside and wrestled her younger sister back onto the bed, releasing her only when Farida fell silent. “Stop. It’s done. You must decide how you’re going to deal with this.”

Farida sucked in oxygen. Strands of hair clung to her damp face. Alia smoothed them back and spoke with her usual pragmatism. “Something like this was inevitable. You were never going to be permitted spinsterhood. Not with this.” She slid her hand to Farida’s chin and turned her sister toward the large mirror across the room. Even red and swollen as a pomegranate, Farida’s features—the large eyes beneath swooping brows, the imperious arch of cheekbone and nose, the full lips offset by the darling chin—commanded attention. Alia shrugged at her own reflection. “Who knew that my looks would turn out to be my best advantage?”

Farida leaned against her sister, averting her gaze from the mirror. Where her own features were sharply cut, Alia’s doughy flesh was mottled and pitted, the result of adolescent acne. The same small chin that so perfectly balanced Farida’s generous mouth was a liability for Alia, nearly disappearing into the plump folds of her neck. Their father had been unable to find a wealthy man for Alia. Instead, he reacted with humiliating gratitude when she suggested to him that most unlikely and unusual of circumstances: a love match. Alia’s husband, Rehman Khan, was no less homely than she, albeit small and scrawny where she was large.

“Is he a grown man, or still a boy?” their mother had wondered after meeting him. “Will she be his wife or his mother?”

But like Alia, Rehman was a student of philosophy, and Farida, each time she visited them, was struck anew by their smiling, whispered conversations, more like talk between women friends than husband and wife. The two lived quietly, their lives centered on their studies and their three small girls.

Farida shuddered. She had once recoiled from the prospect of such subdued domesticity. She long assumed a similar match for herself, albeit lacking, of course, the luxury of love. There would have been nightly dinners with his parents and weekend visits to her own family, those gatherings featuring tiresome eyebrow-arching gossip about the people they would inevitably know in common. Now, facing this new, terrifying reality, she yearned for that old scenario of limitations.

Alia retrieved Alice from the floor and handed it to her.

Farida clutched it to her chest. “If only I could be like the Cheshire Cat and disappear. If we’d stayed in London, this never would have happened.”

Again, Alia splashed her with the icy bath of reality. “If we’d stayed in London, Papa would have gone bankrupt.”

Far from being the shortcut to success that Latif Basra had imagined, the family’s move to London—where he’d wangled an instructor’s position at what turned out to be a second-rate college—involved a succession of increasingly dingy flats, even as his debts piled higher.

“In a way, I suppose you saved him,” Alia mused. “Although who would choose that way?”

“Stop.” Farida didn’t need another reminder that her own behavior had precipitated their hasty return. Those previous suitors, the ones she’d so casually rejected. How could she not have foreseen this inevitable end to her relentless faultfinding? Her parents had done her the favor of seeking out men who, if not wealthy, were at least from their own circle. She’d left her parents no choice but to opt for money. And they, perhaps wisely, had spoken for her this time. To oppose this decision would be to bring shame beyond anything she’d heaped upon them in England.

“You always wanted excitement—new things, different cultures.” A filament of anger glowed within Alia’s words. Farida realized now how deeply her implied criticism of Alia’s life had cut her sister. “Now you will have them.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Silent Hearts includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

For fans of A Thousand Splendid Suns comes a stirring novel set in Afghanistan​ about two women—an American aid worker and her local interpreter—who form an unexpected friendship despite their utterly different life experiences and the ever-increasing violence that surrounds them in Kabul.

In 2001, Kabul is suddenly a place of possibility as people fling off years of repressive Taliban rule. This hopeful chaos brings together American aid worker Liv Stoellner and Farida Basra, an educated Pakistani woman still adjusting to her arranged marriage to Gul, the son of an Afghan strongman whose family spent years of exile in Pakistan before returning to Kabul.

Both Liv and her husband take positions at an NGO that helps Afghan women recover from the Taliban years. They see the move as a reboot—Martin for his moribund academic career, Liv for their marriage. But for Farida and Gul, the move to Kabul is fraught, severing all ties with Farida’s family and her former world, and forcing Gul to confront a chapter in his life he’d desperately tried to erase.

The two women, brought together by Farida’s work as an interpreter, form a nascent friendship based on their growing mutual love for Afghanistan, though Liv remains unaware that Farida is reporting information about the Americans’ activities to Gul’s family, who have ties to the black market.

As the bond between Farida and Liv deepens, war-scarred Kabul acts in different ways upon them, as well as their husbands. Silent Hearts is an absorbing, complex portrayal of two very dif­ferent but equally resilient women caught in the conflict of a war that will test them in ways they never imagined.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss Farida’s and Gul’s different upbringings. Why do Farida and Gul oppose marriage to each other? Why can’t they refuse?

2. What’s the state of Liv and Martin’s marriage when we first meet them? What once brought them together, and what threatens to push them apart?

3. The novel depicts the moment the characters learn about the September 11 attacks. How does this event impact Farida and Gul’s lives? Liv and Martin’s lives?

4. What happens during the covert trip from Peshawar to Jalalabad that makes Gul and, to some extent, his mother see and treat Farida differently? What does the scene tell you about Farida’s character?

5. Gul recalls the last time he and his family were in Kabul. What do you learn from this backstory? How does this inform your understanding of his character?

6. “Children ran about, anchoring crude kites that dipped and swirled in a sky hazy with woodsmoke” (page 148). What does Liv presume to see, and how does Mrs. Khan change her perspective? How did you feel as you read this scene?

7. Why does Martin withhold the letter from Mrs. Khan? Are you surprised by this action, given what you know of Martin’s character?

8. When Liv visits an Afghani wife with Farida on page 184, how does she inadvertently offend the woman? What other events show that Liv is out of place in Kabul?

9. What does Nur Muhammed plan to do to address the increased presence of America in Afghanistan? How might his previous experience with the Russians have influenced his plan?

10. What does Liv discover when she meets the Australian reporter at the Face the Future function? How does she react? What is the list that she makes (page 237)?

11. Discuss the market scene on page 259. In what ways does it impact Liv and Martin’s relationship? How did you feel about their reactions?

12. After Liv and Hamidullah come across Farida and Martin, what decision does Farida make? Why?

13. How does Gul feel when he learns about Farida’s alleged infidelity? How does Farida convince Gul that she has always been faithful?

14. What is the meaning of the name Arsalan? Why did Farida choose that name?

15. What do you imagine happens to Farida after the novel closes? And to Liv?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The night before Farida leaves for her new life with Gul, her sister, Alia, gives her one last piece of advice. Do you agree with the advice? Discuss the thematic significance of the advice throughout the book.

2. Reflect on a friendship—your own or that of someone close to you—that had formed regardless of different backgrounds.

3. Read novels that focus on women caught in times of war, like A Thousand Splendid Suns and A House Without Windows. Discuss how the authors portray the female characters and the roles they play within the story.

4. The novel raises questions about the complex nature of events that happened after 9/11. How does the author explore different sides and perspectives in this time in history?

About The Author

Photograph by Slikati Photography

Gwen Florio is the author of Silent Hearts. She grew up in a 250-year-old brick farmhouse on a wildlife refuge in Delaware and now lives in Montana. Currently the city editor for the Missoulian, Gwen has reported on the Columbine High School shooting and from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. Montana, her first novel in the Lola Wicks detective series, won the High Plains Book Award and the Pinckley Prize for debut crime fiction.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (July 2018)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501181924

Raves and Reviews

"A rich, haunting, immersive story of cultures at the crossroads—deeply moving. A heart-smashingly good read, the kind of novel you’ll want to share with your book club."—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

“Gwen Florio paints a nuanced and heartbreaking portrait of two women, one American and the other Pakistani, and demonstrates how their plight is achingly similar, despite their obvious differences. By flipping the script, Florio not only shows us life in post-9/11 Afghanistan but also casts a dispassionate eye toward America, as seen by those who bear the brunt of its aggression.”—Thrity Umrigar, author of The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us

"Silent Hearts is searing, brave, and complex, but most importantly, an absolute pleasure to read. I was floored by the depths contained in this book--Florio dissects two marriages with the measured eye of an anthropologist, but paints the husbands and wives with unexpected grace, humility, and pathos. Florio's greatest gift is creating dread--readers will devour each page. This is the best kind of reading, the white-knuckled kind. Florio's twists and turns are never telegraphed, and the ending shocking and so very true. Above all else, this is an important book, a necessary book, an honest and fair-minded examination of love blooming in an arranged marriage, in the most unlikely of places and times: Afghanistan in 2001. I learned so much, and I felt even more. Silent Hearts is my favorite book of the year."—Richard Fifield, author of The Flood Girls

"Gorgeous. Illuminating. Resonant. Thrilling. I've read and adored Gwen Florio's Lola Wicks series but Silent Hearts shows us a new side of Florio's talent as an expert on Afghani culture and politics. The heroines are strong-willed, resilient, intricately flawed, and both less-than-perfect. A masterful story that surprises and deserves every single accolade it's sure to get . . . and then some."—Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Year

"Silent Hearts is one of the best books I've ever read about America's long dirty war in Afghanistan . . . . [It] is a non-stop flight to Kabul, transporting readers to a land inhabited by 'a people bent beneath the weight of war.' With her impeccable eye for detail, Florio makes us feel what it's like to live beneath the oppression of a burqa in a place where eyes ache from 'the constant scrub of the dust in the air,' where shopping in the marketplace means taking your life in your hands, and where women face the greatest danger not from incoming missiles but from their own husbands."—David Abrams, author of Brave Deeds and Fobbit

“Two very different women cross paths and their lives are changed forever. I found myself riveted by this story, the richness of the setting, and the geo-political themes written intimately on the lives of these two women.”—Shilpi Somaya Gowda, #1 bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son

“Too often in stories of modern war, the everyday lives of those caught up in its ravages are pushed to the background. Not so in Silent Hearts, a ferocious, whip-smart tribute to those everyday lives. Readers will become immersed in the hopes and fears of Farida and Liv, and find themselves wishing we all possessed the courage of these women. If we did, the world would be a much finer place."—Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood

“With deep reservoirs of empathy and intelligence, Gwen Florio’s Silent Hearts asserts that humanity is something we share across cultures and that all hearts break the same. Her talent is on full display in these pages and she is masterful.”—Elliot Ackerman, author of Dark at the Crossing

"Florio (Dakota, 2014), who reported from Afghanistan as a journalist, handles her material with conviction and skill.”— Booklist

“Florio delivers an intriguing, well-spun tale that is both a striking portrait of two resilient, appealing women and a fascinating in-depth depiction of the cultural and religious aspects of life in Kabul after the collapse of the Taliban regime. VERDICT Highly recommended, especially for fans of Khaled Hosseini.”— Library Journal (starred review)

"[Florio] writes with authority about the poverty, the discrimination, the danger of life in Kabul during the days of American bombing following 9/11. . . . Silent Hearts is that rare book that tells a compelling story while teaching you about a culture halfway around the world."The Denver Post

"[Silent Hearts is] not only the best book I’ve read by a Missoula author this year, it’s the best book I’ve read in 2018."— Missoula Independent

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