Rosanne Hawke, The Truth About Peacock Blue, Allen & Unwin, September 2015, 253pp., $15.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781743319949
The serious tone of this novel is established at the beginning with the death, from illness, of a loved brother. Straight away we are invited into the close-knit Christian family of Aster as they mourn at the funeral and comfort each other.
Almost immediately, too, the threat of violence to and the vulnerability of women and girls in Pakistani society is emphasised by an attack on Aster’s cousin Hadassah.
Because of her sibling’s death, Aster is given the rare chance to continue her schooling in place of her brother. The catch is that although she and her family are Christian, the only school and the teachers are Muslim. Conflict between Aster and a vindictive teacher escalates when the teacher accuses Aster of blasphemy and she is unjustly imprisoned. What follows is a long process of legal battles and public protests to free the girl, who becomes known online as Peacock Blue.
When I began reading this story, set in Pakistan, I thought HELP! I don’t understand all these words. Fortunately there is a helpful glossary of Urdu and Arabic words provided at the back of the book. I had to remind myself that this IS a story, because it is set up to appear to be and is totally believable as non-fiction. The author’s knowledge of the country and culture stands her in good stead.
Is it now a given that all YA books should use social media as a plot tool? It seems like you can’t pick up a book these days without the author jumping on the band wagon and including texts, Facebook posts or email (or all three.) Sign of the times, I guess. It is an integral part of the struggle to free Aster, so in this case I will accept the necessity of the device. Literary reference to To Kill A Mockingbird is used along with the biblical story of Joseph to reinforce the themes of justice and false accusation.
There is violence and privation in the story but it is dealt with in a straightforward way without dwelling on distressing details. The information that the attack on Hadassah was a rape that produced a child is revealed slowly, as Aster herself finds out the truth. Hadassah is provided with a caring husband and a future. The gentleness of this outcome makes the story more palatable for young readers, if perhaps less believable for me. There are both good and bad Muslim people portrayed: the author has been careful to avoid vilification of one religion over another.
At the end of the book there is no resolution of the legal battle and Aster is still imprisoned, bravely writing her story in secret. This is appropriate, as the struggles and suffering of the real women and girls suffering persecution under Sharia law is ongoing. This book is a call to action.
Reviewed by Julie Thorndyke