I wanted to read this novel from almost the moment I knew of its existence. The author was born in Tehran’s Evin Prison in 1983, where her mother was a political prisoner. The work explores the life of Iranian political prisoners in the 1980s, the mass killing of leftist prisoners in 1988, the ongoing impact of imprisonment on relationships between former prisoners and their children and the cycle of dissent and oppression in Iran, with its most recent manifestation in the mass protests after the 2009 presidential election. The narrative shifts back and forward in place and time and deals with a number of characters, all of whom are connected in some way to a group of women detained in Evin Prison in 1983.
The novel explores some interesting themes. As a reader with a long-standing interest in Iranian history, society and culture and a familiarity with modern Iranian politics, it should have enthralled me. But it didn’t. Instead, it was profoundly disappointing and I only finished reading it because it was short and because I generally finish books I start.
Part of the problem with the work is the confusing structure. Too many characters are introduced, it’s not easy to remember how all of them are related to each other and the work is too short for any of the characters to be developed in a meaningful way. While I have no problem in theory with a narrative which shifts back and forward in place and time, in this novel the effect is choppy. I suspect that the lack of flow would be an even greater problem for a reader who wasn’t familiar with the background to the narrative.
However, for me the biggest problem is the writing. Delijani has potential as a storyteller and writer, but someone needs to tell her to restrain her impulse to use similes to pad out every paragraph. Not every action, experience or emotion needs to be compared to something else. The overuse of similes is particularly problematic when the images make no sense or are frankly inappropriate. An example:
He had a slightly big head and rice-tray eyes that flashed back at his surroundings like a fawn on the run.As it happens, I know what a rice-tray looks like and while I haven't seen a fawn on the run, there can't be any similarity between the two.
Another animal-themed example:
She watches the reflections of the lights on the window, like eyes of sick pigeons staring.Huh?
And what does this mean?
Inside, it was if her heart had been soaked in a pond of freezing light.A sexual simile, which does not seem particularly apt:
It was the most silent lovemaking they’d ever had, like the sky had landed on them.Here’s another unfortunate sexual image, describing a couple having a post-coital nap.
And they fell asleep in the scent of each other’s bodies, serene , like children content, collapsing after a long day at the beach.I highlighted dozens of these strange, inappropriate or just plain nonsensical similes and the odd inane metaphor. When the language is so distractingly bad, getting lost in the story becomes impossible.
I really hope that Delijani’s ability as a writer improves, because she has something to say. There were times when her writing moved me; for example, her description of a child being removed from her prisoner mother, the execution of another prisoner and the reaction of an Iranian expatriate who observed the events of 2009 on her computer screen. However, whatever Deljani has to say, in this novel she has not said it well. If and when she writes another novel, I'll be in no hurry to read it.