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Book review

Blood and sand

By Peter Millar
The Times, London
September 25, 1999

James Buchan writes like a dream. Almost literally. But he also knows his stuff. His years working in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times have brought home a rich harvest in his latest book, A Good Place to Die, which must be one of the most perceptive attempts to understand the Iranian psyche ever undertaken in an English work of fiction.

John Pitt, an English 18-year-old, travels to Iran in the spring of 1974, finds himself work as a school-teacher and ends up falling in love with one of his pupils, who just happens to be the daughter of a general in the air force of the Shah, already promised in an arranged marriage to his aide-de-camp. Their flight from the Iranian establishment and into the whirlwind of its destiny is an epic love story, littered with references to Persian cultural traditions.

Here are two cultures attempting a fusion but destined to clash. As the revolution of the ayatollahs sweeps the country, Pitt is separated from his young wife - how can an Englishman be the true husband of a Shia Muslim, the fundamentalists demand? The rest of his life is to be spent seeking her and their infant daughter, through the horrors of imprisonment and torture. Caught up in anti-Western frenzy, Pitt faces execution only to end up as cannon fodder in the murderous war against Iraq.

The first-person storytelling is both paced and elegant, Buchan's prose cutting between action, reflection and rich description to bring alive both the exotic beauty and terrible brutality of the region. This is a rare achievement in writing about a part of the world that too often is reduced to a handful of clichés. Buchan maps out the tragedy of modern Iran with sympathy and understanding and the ending has a perfect bittersweet poignancy.

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