A book review
In a publishing world where a majority of manuscripts are printed exclusively for the benefit of marketplace, it is uncommon to find the work of a new author in print simply on its own merit and because it was too good to reject. The Septembers of Shiraz is such a book. Not only is it written from the heart, but also the soft touch in Dalia Sofer’s style is a rare gift to readers who crave good literary work.
True as it may be that the title could have been more relevant – as noted by several critics – by the time I realized this I was pulled so deeply into the story that I no longer cared. Ironically, the misleading title works to the book’s advantage because I doubt I would have picked it off the shelf if the title were Septembers at Evin, or any other that might have revealed its plot.
The current title of this novel foreshadows poetic prose, a promise that despite the horrific storyline, the author keeps throughout. During the recent decades, Iranian immigrants have written numerous memoirs and it has reached a point where a fresh voice is welcomed. What our nation has endured is all too familiar, however, Sofer’s soft touch is like a balm to the wound that resists healing.
In this novel, Dalia Sofer in her lyrical style walks the readers through a peaceful society and the sanctuary of Iranian home just to infuse the unbearable pain suffered by many in the dungeons of Evin. While she joins the new wave of looking back with a focus on the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, her unique approach spares readers from the redundancy seen in many other books of this genre.
The protagonist, Isaac Amin, happens to be an Iranian Jewish man, but at no point in the book does one detect an underlying agenda to glorify this, or any other minorities. Isaac suffers alongside the Christian, the Muslim, young and old. In fact, there are many passages where the only way to know the characters’ faith is through their given names. How regrettable it is to see the union of our nation in a most unfortunate circumstance. “In this room, stripped of their ornaments and belongings, they are nothing more than bodies, each as likely as the next to face a firing squad or to go home, unscathed, with a gripping tale to tell friends and family.”
In reference to the late shah, the simple truth in Sofer’s one small paragraph tells more than all the other comments we’ve heard in support or against the monarch. “Isaac saw him as neither visionary nor despot, but as a man who had wished both himself and his country to be something they were not.” And she only needs one sentence to depict the Iranian marriage among the upper crust during that era. “… Turning her husband into the kind of man who could offer her the rarest luxuries, but little else, and herself into the kind of woman who had come to accept these terms.” Such brief remarks are sprinkled throughout the novel and perhaps it is their brevity that gives them the cutting edge of a laser beam.
Like a camera, Dalia Sofer’s fine pen takes her readers to the heart of every scene, enabling them to see the characters and feel their pain. “A neighbor emerges from her house and hurries down the street. “They brought eggs today!” she yells to Farnaz and whizzes by . . . That the city is short by one man this morning makes so little difference.”
Symbolism and artistic metaphors are the backbones of Persian poetry, but such tender writing is uncommon in our prose, especially where injustice, captivity and torture are concerned. How refreshing it is to hear details of vindictive actions told in a surprisingly soft voice. Sofer walks that fine line between being compassionate or offensive with, “How unyielding is that space between connection and interruption – one false move, one mistaken word, and you find yourself on the wrong side of things.” And yet, throughout the book she maintains her impartiality with utmost precision.
The protagonist, Isaac, is a jeweler in Tehran, a Jew whose family has lived peacefully among Muslims for generations, an employer betrayed by those he trusted. He comes alive on the page and his character is so true that the reader knows him well. After three decades of similar fates, we have all come across a few Isaacs of our own, regardless of their gender, religion or status. The lonely man in Dalia Sofer’s book is you, and me, and an entire nation who had it all just to let go and end up in a place “ . . . where people will mispronounce their names and where they will eventually stop correcting them . . .”
My hat is off to a young woman who left Iran at the age of ten, yet understands the depth of her nation’s grief and cares enough to write about it. I’ve enjoyed every page of this novel and it leaves me with only one question. “When will her next book be out?”