A Taste of Cockroach is a group of short stories by the Australian author, Allan Baillie.
The Pencil is one of the short stories included in the book. It tells the story of a young girl called Nerida travelling through the ruins of a city in Afghanistan. Hungry and scared, Nerida has a frightening encounter with a Taliban leader at a food stall. He discovered a pencil in her pocket and accused her of doing a mans work. He threatens to publicly execute her and after several suspenseful minutes filled with terror, a boy passing by comes to Nerida’s rescue, claiming that he dropped the pencil. Nerida escapes and hurriedly continues on her way. In the end she makes it to an abandoned wreckage where she goes to school in secret.
The setting is a key element in the story as it allows historical accuracy and helps the reader understand the poor state of living that the Taliban enforced upon the Afghans. Through the lavish descriptions of the derelict city the reader is fully able to understand and comprehend the horror of the Taliban’s rule. This insight then adds to the story’s main idea, that the Taliban were tyrants who oppressed their countrymen. Also, these descriptions of rundown buildings, deserted alleyways and rubble filled streets create a sinister and neglected mood contributing to the overall feeling of unease that the reader experiences.
The main theme of the story is the Taliban’s oppressive rule of Afghanistan and how women were not treated with respect and equality. This theme is strongly conveyed through Nerida’s actions, as described by the text. One particularly moving piece of text that fully conveys the dominance of the Taliban and the effects of it on women is when Nerida is at her illegal school. The author contemplates Nerida’s actions and how they are silently rebelling against the ban on female education, he writes “During the long day she and the other girls scrawled the illicit secrets that the beards – the Taliban – had desperately tried to keep from them. Things like arithmetic, writing, geography, Afghan history and Persian literature.”
Through the use of sophisticated language choices such as creative names, short sentences and dialogue depth has being added to the story. Recurringly, the author has dubbed the Taliban “The beards” which adds a little bit of novelty to the story. In addition to this it provides an insight into the character of Nerida, and how the only way for her the deal with the horror in her life is to name people so that they seem less foreboding. Short sentences have been used to express the uncertainty of living under the rule of the Taliban. An example of when a short sentence has being used in this way is on page 154 when the author says “If the Beards don’t see the women then they don’t see you. If you’re lucky.” This sentence acts almost like an afterthought as it highlights the danger of simply walking outside. Throughout the story paragraphs have been broken up with dialogue. This enthrals the reader as they learn more about the characters through their interactions with other people.
The story structure is clearly defined making it easy to read and allowing the message to get across without obstructing it with fancy writing techniques. Suspense is cleverly used when Nerida thinks she has lost treasured pencil forever. Sympathetically the reader emphasises with her believing that it is indeed gone. But alas, the pencil is found in her pocket. This event provides a sharp climax and of course an element of surprise. Rather than having a specific genre The pencil consistently documents the everyday life of a young girl living under the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.
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