Lipstick in Afghanistan: A Book Review

30 Nov

Full disclosure: I was contacted by an agent promoting a new novel entitled Lipstick in Afghanistan by former aid worker, Roberta Gately. The agent asked me to review Lipstick in Afghanistan on this blog, in exchange for a free copy, and I said I would. I’ve never written a book review before, and I cannot specifically remember the last time I’ve even read a book review. I normally review proposals, strategy documents, reports, and so this is a new thing for me. Here goes…

* * *

I once compared a career in aid work to being in an emotionally abusive relationship with a cruel, unattainable lover.  And in that context, for those still pining for that aid career, Lipstick in Afghanistan it’s own kind of aid erotica. It’s the kind of exciting and dangerous, but basically feel-good story that makes you want to quit your day job, move to Afghanistan and try to cut it as an aid worker. Or in my case, quit my day job and try to cut it as a novelist (my novel is in-progress, by the way, and online………).

Elsa, moved by photographs of starving brown babies, decides that she needs to “make a difference in the world.” Over the next several chapters Elsa rises above her wrong-side-of-the-tracks, humble upbringing, completes nursing school and lands a job with Aide du Monde (ADM). On, like the second try… no messing around with unpaid internships or admin work while waiting for that big break.

It’s a sweet job, too. It’s the kind of work that many of you, gentle readers, would positively kill for: front line, hands-on stuff, straight out the gate. Which is to say that in the story, Elsa has never been out of the United States before, never had a passport before, has no language skills, never had security training or even briefing of any kind… And ADM dumps her, totally green, at a predictably understaffed, undersupplied clinic in the middle of a war zone. Bamiyan.

From there it’s more or less the kind of Afghanistan aid work drama you’d expect. We get the full backstory on a local woman named Parween, with whom Elsa bonds, presumably over their somewhat similar backgrounds (personally, I found this to be a bit of a stretch). Elsa’s personal aid work, travel, deal-with-life ritual (we all have them) involves lipstick (hence the title) – and that theme surfaces from time to time throughout. There are exactly the sorts of culture shock and worlds-colliding moments that you’d expect, and it’s obvious that Ms. Gately has spent time in Afghanistan and knows something about the culture and language.

No novel about aid work would be complete without a little love interest. In this case, despite some very specific instruction to not… uhhhh… fraternize with soldiers, Elsa early finds herself strangely drawn to obligatorily American “Mike” (is there an American PRT in Bamiyan? I don’t even know…). And no novel about aid work in Afghanistan would be complete without a bit of Taliban-induced mayhem. I think I can, without being a spoiler, share that the climax naturally involves a lot of running through the mountains at night, close calls, nail biting, detonations, and in some ways the disentangling of worlds that had previously collided.

Lipstick in Afghanistan paints a mostly believable, if somewhat dramatized picture of aid work. Slightly girlish for my tastes, though still a good read. But my guess is that actual aid workers will not be drawn to it for many of the same reasons that doctors and nurses may roll their eyes at shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and real spies might turn up their noses at Robert Ludlum. There are no glaring inaccuracies or huge misrepresentations (except for Elsa’s fast-track into full-time field work with ADM). But I spent my time with Lipstick in Afghanistan fighting the urge to pick it apart, rather than enjoying it. This, I suppose, is why aid workers read spy novels and medical thrillers.

But if you’re a spy or an ER doc., or you just can’t live without knowing whether Elsa escaped from the Taliban, whether she had a passionate night of fraternizing with soldier Mike (and whether that night – if it did happen – involved lipstick or not), or what became of Parween…

Get yourself to wherever books are sold and pick up your very own copy of Lipstick in Afghanistan.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Lipstick in Afghanistan, is a novel by Roberta Gately a former aid worker (now novelist). Here are a series of links related to Ms. Gately and her book, released to the public in trade paperback on Nov. 9. Here are links about the book and Ms. Gately provided to me by the publisher.

An excerpt:

For the backstory:

Roberta’s Triage blog:
A Photo Gallery:
A Reading Group Guide for LIPSTICK IN AFGHANISTAN:
Articles and Resources:
Video of Roberta discussing her aid work in Afghanistan:

You can also find Roberta Gately on Facebook ( and follow her on Twitter @RobertaGately.

9 Responses to “Lipstick in Afghanistan: A Book Review”

  1. Marianne 30 November, 2010 at 2:52 am #

    I’m half way through reading this same book for the very same reason. I guess it would make sense to ask me to review it, and so far it’s been better than I expected. The title almost put me off before I started but as you say – it’s obviously written by someone who was around in Afghanistan long enough to avoid glaring inaccuracies.

    Does that mean it’s ‘realistic’ – I’m not sure that’s the intention of the book. My sense is that the author hoped to write a book that was very accessible and appealing to an audience (i.e. mostly American women) who might not otherwise read a book about Afghanistan. In that sense, I expect the book has been a success.

    But I’m only half-way through – it only arrived yesterday, and I don’t expect to get my review up until the end of the week.

    • J. 30 November, 2010 at 8:19 am #

      Let me know when you’re is up! Keen to hear your thoughts…

  2. Carol 30 November, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    LOL. “Slightly girlish”? Like a Julia Roberts movie? 😉

  3. Theresa Sondjo 30 November, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    Please do more book reviews. This is awesome.

    • Tom 1 December, 2010 at 11:26 am #

      I second Theresa’s sentiments.

  4. Transitionland 4 December, 2010 at 7:07 am #

    I was also asked to review this, but was lazy and declined.

    I have to admit, I really want someone to write the ‘Emergency Sex’ of the 2000’s conflicts. I really do. But I suspect this book falls short of being that, or even part of that.

    ***Stop reading this comment right now if you are annoyed by ‘I know country X better than this you!’ and ‘wrong on the internet!’ aid snarkery.***

    A few hmmmm points right off the bat:

    1) The PRT in Bamiyan is run by New Zealand. It’s small, welcome and rarely makes news. (Bamiyan residents often say they wish the US ran the PRT, but that’s just because the US is associated with big spending on development projects and people in Bamiyan have a somewhat exaggerated idea of how much money has been spent on the embattled south.)

    2) A Taliban attack in Bamiyan? Unlikely. Bamiyan was one of the early provinces to be liberated in 2001. The Taliban fled as fast as they could, and were never welcome in the region to begin with. Today, Bamiyan is one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan, maybe THE safest. It’s the only place I felt safe enough to wander around potato fields at midnight with an Afghan friend and the light provided by my cell phone. Even Bamiyan’s border district troubles are extremely mild. To date, I believe only one foreign soldier, a Kiwi, has been killed in the province. And that was a recent death, caused by an IED in a border district. My sense of “safe” is pretty warped at this point…but Bamiyan is among the least warzoney spots in this particular war zone.

    3) OMG! Maybe the novel is set in THE FUTURE! A Taliban attack would make a lot more sense in that context.😦

    4) You mention almost nothing about Parween. Is she a hollow stereotype in the novel? I hope not. I met plenty of awesome, memorable women in Bamiyan.

    5) Can someone OTHER than Khlaed Hosseini (who I love, don’t get me wrong) PLEASE write fiction about Afghanistan? With Afghans as protagonists? Pretty please?

    6) There’s a flurry of aid worker and journo memoirs from Afghanistan about to be published. Marianne Elliott (@zenpeacekeeper), journalist Anand Gopal and several others are all getting ready to publish their accounts of life here. A few niche projects are also in the works, including a collaborative memoir about an Afghan-expat band of roguish bikers getting into disturbing and hilarious trouble all over the country.


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