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Lipstick in Afghanistan    by Roberta Gately order for
Lipstick in Afghanistan
by Roberta Gately
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 2010 (2010)
Softcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Roberta Gately, author of Lipstick in Afghanistan, has herself served as a nurse and humanitarian aid worker in third world war zones, including in Afghanistan. This adds depth and credibility to her fictional story of a young woman, Elsa Murphy, who grows up in poverty in Boston. Spurred by a magazine article on Rwanda, she embarks on a career as a nurse and then volunteers for Aide du Monde (ADM), who send her to Afghanistan.

She's sent to Bamiyan, 'home of the famous Buddha statues' destroyed by the Taliban. Once Elsa arrives and her role is quickly explained, the previous ADM volunteer leaves her alone to administer the clinic run by Afghan medical staff. With the help of her interpreter/assistant Hamid (who treats her like a sister), Elsa gradually gains confidence in her work and makes friends of staff at the hospital, and of a village woman, Parween, a feisty young mother widowed by the Taliban.

Gately tells Parween's back story as well, sharing with readers her hardworking childhood; her close friendship with Mariam (with whom she shared an old tube of lipstick given to her by a cousin); and her betrothal at age twelve and marriage at sixteen to a kind young man she learned to love. Mariam was not so lucky, but was sent away to be the third (and very much lesser) wife of an old man who abused her badly. Saying farewell to her friend, Parween gave her the tube of lipstick.

Together, Elsa and Parween take risks to help Afghan girls and women, solidifying their friendship. Elsa meets and falls in love with a U.S. Special Forces soldier, despite ADM's non-fraternization rule. And she travels, hidden under a burqa, with Parween to other villages. But then disaster strikes. People close to Elsa die, and she is forced to leave her post and return to the United States.

Lipstick is a theme - and a symbol of hope and friendship - running through the story. Elsa, for whom it raises the spirits, brings a supply with her and shares it with her new friends, while it was always important in Parween and Mariam's close relationship. Lipstick in Afghanistan is an engaging read, giving insights into the life of an aid worker, and showing how friendship and solidity can empower women, no matter how desperate their situations.

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