Beh’s family was already in Canada when she was born. Her parents and two older siblings emigrated there from Afghanistan to escape war; Beh’s uncle, Kaka Farhad, had previously settled in British Columbia. Monster Child, Rahela Nayebzadah’s impressive new novel of immigration and family dysfunction, is told from the perspective of thirteen year-old Beh and her two teenage siblings, Alif and Shabnam.
They have not left Afghanistan entirely behind. As the novel begins, Beh and Alif join their father, uncle and cousins on a two-hour journey to a farm that raises cows, sheep, and goats for halal markets in British Columbia. Kaka Farhad is a butcher; most of the extended family is expected to participate in this outing. The chosen sheep is held by their father while Kaka Farhad prepares to slaughter it.
For a short period, the animal tries to escape. From afar, I can see a tear dribble down its face. It is not a tear of blood, like Shabnam’s. Animals aren’t as dumb as they look—at this moment, it becomes clear to them that they’re drawing their last breaths, and they submit themselves.
This reference to blood generally and Shabnam’s tears is an early instance of a leitmotif that reoccurs throughout the novel. Although considered the most humane, the halal (and kosher) way of slaughter involves massive amounts of blood. Not long after, Beh’s cousin Amir, who had also been on that outing, sexually assaults her. Beh is angry and ashamed at the same time, a monster. This first part of the novel is told through Beh’s perspective and concludes when she attempts to share her secret with her mother. But because her cousin is training to become a leader at their mosque, she doesn’t hold out much hope.
Shabnam, who feels herself to be a monster for her tears of blood, narrates the novel’s second part and introduces some magical realism. Shabnam and her siblings don’t have the same birthmother; hers died in childbirth. Yet her father has told her nothing about her birthmother other than she died from a loss of blood due to a retained placenta.
By the time Alif’s story comes around, the family has experienced multiple losses, including a failed new restaurant that celebrates Afghan food and culture.
Baluchi rugs, traditional Bokhara print carpets and a map of Afghanistan cover the walls, except for the main wall, which displays a mural of merchants, traders and pilgrims travelling the silk route on a camel caravan. A smaller replica of the mural also appears on the store sign, outside. Lights are replaced with fanoos, and in the centre, a tiered, rustic chandelier hangs high. Hookahs, drums, rubab and flutes are displayed in one section of the restaurant, and lajvard carvings of Budeh Bamyan in another. There are no chairs or tables, but rather, heavy, intricate-patterned Afghani rugs, pillows and foam mattresses.
Their community in British Columbia makes it known that the restaurant and the family are not welcome in the neighborhood. Alif helps at the restaurant and comes to feel like a monster himself.
Nayebzadah packs a complicated family history into this short novel, rife with trauma—the sexual assault sections are not easy to read—from the beginning until the end. And it’s at the end that Beh and her siblings learn that blood ties are binding after all.