Thursday, 5 November 2020

Aria by Nazanine Hozar

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“My girl, there’s a lot you still need to learn about this country, about its people. It is seven thousand years old, maybe more. When something is that old, it begins to crack. It beings to rot. The oldest tree is the first to burn, right?”

This is the second book I have read this year by an Iranian author in exile and spanning the period of the Iran’s Islamic revolution. But Nazanine Hozar’s Aria is a very different kind of novel to Shookefeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Azar’s book, which opens in the middle of the revolution and brings us close the present day, is woven with Persian folklore. Hozar’s novel, on the other hand, begins in the 1950s and draws together the threads that brought about the revolution and created its fanatics.

Aria is a baby girl abandoned in an alleyway by her desperate mother and found by chance by a man in a childless and loveless marriage. He is determined to save the baby, but his wife is less than impressed with his philanthropy.

It is the twists and turns of Aria’s life that we follow for the rest of the novel, as she leaves the desperately poor South City to live with a family who were once silversmiths to the Shahs. Around her are a panoply of characters – there are Aria’s three ‘mothers’, Mehri, Zahra and Fereshteh. Her father and his friend Rameen. Kamran, the boy with the harelip, who befriends her when she needs it most. Her schoolfriends, Mitra and Hamlet.

Through them, we glimpse the different religious groups that make up Iran’s diverse society – the Zoroastrians, the Christians, the Jews, all living in an uneasy relationship with the Muslim majority. And we witness the swelling of different forces opposed to the Shah – forces who briefly imagine they are forming a coalition, only to discover that fanaticism has no allies, and that they are swapping one form of oppression and cruelty for another.

One of the things that Hozar does brilliantly is to capture ambiguity. None of her characters are wholly good or wholly bad. They all tread a path of difficult decisions, for which individually there are no perfect choices, but which collectively can lead them in some very dark directions. Aria’s father sums this up well:

“Years ago, Rameen had read to him about the Mona Lisa, saying the reason everyone cherished the painting so much was because of the duplicitous nature it depicted, containing within the curve of a half smile, love and hatred, good and bad. Now he was beginning to see all of life like this, too.”

A deeply moving novel, and one that explains much that I remembered but never fully understood about the events that unfolded in Iran  between 1979 and 1981.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shookefeh Azar, The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz.

Avoid If You Dislike: Depictions of childhood poverty and deprivation

Perfect Accompaniment:
Abgoosht (Persian stew of lamb and childpeas)

Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction,

Buy This Book Here

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