Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book Review: The Septembers of Shiraz

Personally, I have always preferred getting my history lessons in story form.

I don’t know about you, but when I would sit in history class and the teachers would pontificate about timelines and wars and facts and figures, the Middle Ages, 1776, Napoleon, serfs, Galileo, 1893, Presidential assassins,1602, it would all blur together for me and sound like it was coming from the teacher in the Peanuts’ cartoons. Even though I was interested in learning about history, I could only get the vaguest ideas of the events to stick with me, dangling precariously from my cognitive map like a used post it note.

But put The Diary of Anne Frank or My Brother Sam is Dead (about the Revolutionary War) in my hands and bam - mental Super glue. All of the sudden, instead of seeing a blurry blip on the time line and a passage that made my eyes glaze over, I could see history through the eyes of a young girl, who like me, kept a diary, missed her friends and both loved and got annoyed with her family members. I could see through her eyes that the Holocaust meant that innocent Jewish families like hers had to go into hiding and hold their breath, hearts racing every time they heard a knock at the door wondering if this was the time they'd be caught and taken to the gas chambers of the concentration camps.

In The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, Isaac Amin and his memorable cast of family members, though fictional, were able to have the same sticking effect on me. The book transported me to 1980s Iran after the fall of the Shah when wealth was punished and none of rules of the old regime applied. In this tumultuous time, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested and jailed by the Revolutionary Guard, falsely accused of being a Zionist spy. After his disappearance, his wife Farnaz searches anxiously for him while he endures months filled with isolation and torture and the rest of the family must deal with the lives they have always known being pulled apart piece by piece.

The book was artfully written. Dalia Sofer's narration has a quiet power that kept the pages turning and she does a great job of capturing the subtle contradictions and gray areas inside of us all. The narration comes from all four members of the Amin family: Issac, Farnaz, their nine year old daughter Shirin and their son Pariviz who has been sent to New York for college to avoid his being drafted into the Revolutionary Guard. I liked the changes in narration - Isaac who escapes the tedium and terror of prison by letting his mind drift to his younger days in Shiraz when he was a poet and idealist; Farnaz, who has numbed herself to the world and tries to carry on and hold the family together in Isaac's absence; Parviz, lost, alone and indifferent in New York with a futile hope of a relationship with his extremely religious landlord's daughter, and Shirin, trying to make sense of her father's disappearance, losing friends on the playground and boldly taking a risk that might save someone's life, but could also land her father in even more trouble. I felt particularly drawn to the parts from Shirin’s point of view and found myself wondering how much of the story that we saw through Shirin’s eyes came directly from the life experience of the author who fled Iran with her family when she was only ten.

One interesting thing that stood out to me is that the book is written in the seldom-used present tense. I love the immediacy this adds to the story, connecting someone like me, who has grown up in the US and been fortunate enough not to experience the horrors of watching my beloved homeland and family fractured and cleaved apart by the tyrants of an unstable government, to the events that took place in Iran after the fall of the Shah.

I also think the Sofer’s use of the present tense reflects the fact that the Amin family’s lives have been severed from the tranquil days of their lives before the revolution. With their pasts like a distant dream and their futures uncertain, they have no choice but to live day to day in the present moment.

I really enjoyed this book and while its not action packed, the force of the story propelled me forward and really kept the pages turning. It also definitely brought this period of Iranian history to life for me. I'm looking forward to reading more from Dalia Sofer in the future. Thanks to Gayle at Everyday I Write the Book Blog and Harper Collins for putting this book in my hands and hosting the great online book club discussion earlier this week. If you are interested in more from the author, check back on Gayle's site for an upcoming author interview.

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Fun fact: Sofer means writer in Hebrew. I wonder if that is a family name that she grew into or if she took it on as her pen name because of its meaning.

1 comment:

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