A blindfolded woman in labour, in the back of a van that has left Evin Prison in Tehran. It’s an un-put-down-able scene.
It’s 1983, in the third year of the war with Iraq, but the fierce immediacy of the story pulls readers into this debut novel.
Azar’s story is so compelling, that when the narrative shifts, 50 some pages later, to Leila’s perspective in 1987 Tehran, there is a moment of regret.
But that’s all.
For Leila’s story has a different tone (the tension is still palpable in everyday life, though Leila is not imprisoned) but the content is still engaging.
And that’s still true when the voice shifts again, another 50 pages later, to a male perspective.
Collectively these stories pull readers across time and space, drawing attention to the similarities between the characters’ experiences.
“For him, it was all immediate, intimate; he smelled the bullet smoke, the tear gas, and the blood that steeped the streets. He did what her parents had done thirty years earlier.”
Immediate. Intimate. These are words that one can use to describe Sahar Delijani’s style as well.
The narrative crosses thirty years, but the parallels and connections blur the passage of time.
“That as much as he is here with her in this beautiful quiet square [in Turin], he is also there, in that other world of bullets and batons.”
There are varying degrees of involvement and awareness of the political strife and struggle.
“It was 1988, the last year of the war, the sacred war, the sacred defense, the best time to eliminate all dissidents without leaving behind a single trace.”
(The excerpts I have chosen are populated with pronouns, so that even if there are references to spoilers, there is no way to attach an identity from the broad cast of characters to the individual events discussed.)
Some characters openly resist and are at the heart of the dramatic action, while some inhabit the margins for periods of time, but the war permeates the lives of all every character.
“She remembered that her mother had warned her about the maghnaeh, but she hadn’t taken it seriously. She realized then that while she was wrapped in the shroud of her grief, the world had moved, and now every little girl on the street had a headscarf on, and everyone seemed to know about it except her. She surely must have seen them. How could she not have paid attention?”
As readers will expect, with a novel set in post-revolutionary Iran, grief and loss are prominent in Children of the Jacaranda Tree.
“The air around her mother was heavy with paralysis, with internal breaking, like a marble surrendered to the blows of a hammer. Most of the time, Sheida couldn’t wait to get out of the room. The heaviness was unbearable, the pain unrelenting. That was when Sheida understood that no matter how many times and in what ways she tried to ask about her father, her mother would never speak about him. She would always cut her daughter off, would always change the subject. Sheida had no choice but to slowly resigning herself to never knowing.”
There is a sharpness to the kind of family secrets that make for good storytelling. “She hears her mother let out a deep sigh, a sigh as heavy as an old secret.”
But the weight of these secrets is not apparent in the author’s prose.
“A look he didn’t recognize in the beginning but that he realizes has been on her face all along: the look of a woman who is struggling with something inside. Something that is far bigger than she, bigger than anything he’s ever known.”
Many times, the dimensions of a loss are not fully understood until years have passed.
Many times, readers are not aware of the connections between characters which bring those losses into the realm of understanding.
Many times, silence offers a kind of respite.
“Sheida is once again tempted to quell the words on her tongue, to not say anything, to continue living like before, keeping her mother on the safe side, the side of the unspoken. She closes her eyes and opens her mouth once again.”
Many times, there are moments of beauty which pull the reader into another kind of awareness. “A starling perches on the railing in front of the window. Under the damp sky, the geraniums look out of breath.”
But the past is never far away. “Sheida likes the smell of brown cardboard boxes arriving from Iran. They smell of dust and memory.”
Each character’s search for a haven, for a space to call their own even when that seems impossible, takes readers into unexpected places.
“She walks past the bottles and glass barrels and plastic containers, sacks of rice, pink plastic bags of potatoes and onion, jars of jam, unused pots and pans piled where the light cannot reach, and everything is soaked in darkness. And as she walks, the old peaceful, protected feeling gradually comes to reclaim her. She sits down on a tile-covered shelf and wraps her arms around her knees. The wall feels cool against her shoulders. She sits in the dark, a lonely woman looking back at the gray-white wall of her childhood.”
Sahar Delijani’s debut novel inhabits moments of darkness and moments of hopefulness like parallel narrative worlds.
“There were parallel worlds, one in which nothing was hidden, neither the memories nor the family’s contempt for the regime; and the other, in which everything was prohibited, voices were hushed, and children inherited alertness against anything that could put the family in danger, carrying their parents’ secrets with them, heavy as a sack of rocks that they could never set down.”
Readers will have difficulty setting down the novel after such a riveting opening scene, and they will have difficulty setting aside the characters as the stories unfold in Children of the Jacaranda Tree.
Note: This is the third of my IFOA focus posts, in anticipation of this year’s festival in Toronto; Sahar Delijani will be attending. Click the image below for ticket and event information.