Robin Yassin-Kassab

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AriaA sightly edited version of this review appeared at the Guardian.

Unwanted by her father so abandoned by her mother, a baby girl is found under a mulberry tree in wealthy north Tehran. Carrying her home to the impoverished tenements of the southern city, Behrouz – an army driver who, motherless as a boy, had once pretended to be a mother himself – names her Aria. Usually a boy’s name meaning “the Iranian race”, Behrouz intends the musical sense of the word – “little tales, cries in the night”. This ambiguity continues – as Aria grows, she wavers between opposed categories – rich or poor, educated or illiterate, orthodox Shia Muslim or something else. Years later Behrouz reflects on his charge: “she had somehow acquired the ability to be two things in one”.

His neighbours are generally hostile to this illegitimate child. “I bet with those blue eyes that girl’s a Jew or a jinn’s daughter,” says one. And Behrouz’s wife Zahra – the first in a line of false or flawed mother figures – beats and neglects the orphan, often locking her on the balcony. Her bad behaviour is glaring, but Zahra turns out to be a complex character. One of the many strengths of this strong debut by Iranian-Canadian novelist Nazanine Hozar is that every character is contextualised and therefore humanised by an explanatory back story.

And the balcony isn’t so bad. Here Aria is able to communicate with Kamran, the neighbour’s cleft-lipped son, who climbs a tree to deliver bracelets and sweets, whose love for Aria will develop through the years, and whose bitterness after rejection helps shape his later career.

Aria finally finds relief from Zahra, and makes an upward jump in class terms, when she is adopted by Fereshteh, childless heir of the Ferdowsi family, who are ex-Zoroastrians, and once silversmiths to the shahs. Aria calls her ‘Mana’, almost but not quite her Mama. The minor characters populating Fereshteh’s urban palace are distinct and memorable – the foul-mouthed old servant Massoomeh, Fereshteh’s brief husband Mahmoud, and uncle Jafar, a piano-tuning, coin-polishing, newspaper-washing obsessive-compulsive.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 15, 2020 at 10:44 pm

Posted in book review, Iran