Iranian riches, rags, and carpets
Two debut novels set 300 years apart feature the plight of fatherless families in patriarchal Iran
What do you do if your dad disappears? That question takes on even greater significance in a patriarchal society and it's the one confronting by two Iranian girls living 300 years apart. In The Septembers of Shiraz set in 1981 Iran, Shirin Amin's father is grabbed at work by the Revolutionary Guards for the double crime of having lived well under the shah and for being Jewish. The unnamed heroine of The Blood of Flowers loses her father to a farming accident, but the results cause just as much upheaval – if less emotional devastation.
Both "The Septembers of Shiraz" and "The Blood of Flowers" are first novels by talented Iranian-born writers now living in the United States, and both seem primed to enjoy the success among book clubs that helped turn "The Kite Runner" into a runaway bestseller. But "The Septembers of Shiraz" by Dalia Sofer is the more gripping work, perhaps because it is tied to real-life events that continue to echo in world politics today. Sofer fled Iran in 1982 at age 10, and the level of detail with which she crafts her story about a family under duress makes it seem likely that some of the events have been drawn from life.
While Isaac Amin, the jailed father, tries to persuade his interrogator that he is just a gemologist and not a Zionist spy, his wife, Farnaz, struggles to navigate her new world. As the days pass, the beautiful former journalist can hardly get out of bed. Their daughter, Shirin, deep in her own depression, is reminded of a lesson her father once shared with her on ghazals, an Arabic poetic form. " 'There is no end.... That's the first thing you should learn about ghazals. There is no resolution. Imagine the speaker simply throwing his hands in the air.' Maybe in life, as in a ghazal, there is no resolution. She finds relief in the idea of throwing her arms in the air. Maybe there are no solutions, nothing to be done." Farnaz's inertia is no doubt realistic, but it can make for frustrating reading, as can her son Parviz's self-pity, as the architecture student tries to define himself without access to his father's money.
Isaac is the real heart of the novel. The man who made shadow puppets by candlelight so his daughter wouldn't be frightened by the Iraqi bombs falling overhead, uses memories of his family and a life of reading poetry to sustain him as he and his fellow prisoners are tortured and executed. Shirin, meanwhile, finds secret surveillance files in a friend's basement, and steals several, hoping it means the Revolutionary Guards will lose the scent of a few people.
Sofer paints a complicated picture of postrevolutionary Iran: The Amins (and especially their relatives) aren't entirely innocent, having shut their eyes to brutality and corruption under the shah, but Sofer recoils from the idea of justice by "collective retribution" voiced by Farnaz's formerly docile housekeeper. While the dialogue can feel overly formal at times, the impression the reader is left with at the end is that of a powerful story honestly told.
"The Blood of Flowers" by Anita Amirrezvani, with its interwoven fairy tales, feminist-ready plotline, and rich cultural detail, is, in many ways, an easier sell. After her father dies, the girl and her mother travel to Isfahan to live with her dad's half-brother, a rug designer favored by the shah. After surveying the riches in her uncle's house, the girl measures true wealth by the courtyard. "It had a pool of water shaded by two poplars. I thought of the single tree in my village, a large cypress. For one family to have its own shade and greenery seemed to me the greatest of luxuries."
While her aunt never misses a chance to treat them like servants, her uncle is kind to the girl and teaches her the finer points of design and color. His kindness, however, doesn't extend to providing her with a dowry. Unable to marry, she is persuaded to become the legal mistress of a wealthy horse trader. Under the contract, called a sigheh, which is renewable, the two are considered married for three months at a time – a nice bit of sophistry that still exists today.
Unhappy with her tenuous existence, the girl makes plans to use her artistic talents to build a real life for herself and her mother. While the writing sometimes takes on an unmistakably purple tint, that's offset by the evocation of life in 17th-century Isfahan.
Amirrezvani includes traditional folk tales that the mother tells her daughter to take their minds off their troubles and engrossing descriptions about the art of rugmaking and those works' centrality to Iranian culture. Her uncle likes to lecture the narrator about integrity of design and the importance of beauty amid cruelty and injustice, but the woman who runs the public baths sums it up best: " 'Often we must live with imperfection,' she said. 'And when people worry about a stain on their floor, what do they do?' 'They throw a carpet over it,' I replied. 'From Shiraz to Tabriz, from Baghdad to Heart, that is what Iranians do.' "
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.