Iranian author Parinoush Saniee’s debut novel, an international bestseller once banned in her native country, is out in English translation. “The Book of Fate” follows Massoumeh, the eldest surviving daughter in a traditional, religious household where brothers are favored and daughters are subject to their whims and beatings.
At the book’s opening, Massoumeh is a teenager in pre-revolution Tehran struggling to continue her education despite her family’s desire to marry her off. She manages to stall them until they discover that a young pharmacist has been sending her love letters. Enraged about the dishonor this brings on their house, the family determines to marry her to the nearest suitor quickly and quietly. The intervention of a kindly neighbor lands her with a well-educated but indifferent young man whose greatest concern is that his new wife not interfere with his intellectual and political activities. Her life is marked as much by his absence as his presence, and from the beginning she must learn how to manage on her own.
So she does. Through her many challenges — the arranged marriage, years of single parenting, the imprisonment of her husband as a political dissident, her fear at having two sons of draft age during a war, sorrow surrounding the death and emigration of family members — her priority is always to keep her children fed, educated and safe. If it is the tale of the Iranian Everywoman in the age surrounding the revolution, it is also one of a life filled with struggle and all-too-brief interludes of pleasure.
This is Iran from the perspective of someone desperate to avoid political winds but continually buffeted by them, from the departure of the shah, to the installation of the ayatollah, to the Iran-Iraq war. Despite her husband’s leftist ideology, Massoumeh remains persistently apolitical, refusing to be swayed by any political movement, desperate to instill the same skepticism in her children.
Equally influential to her life’s course is the hallowedness of convention in Iranian society. Massoumeh’s own children as adults prove bound by the same old notions of honor that her family adhered to.
When Massoumeh’s old ghosts return later in her life, they prove more visions of what might have been than tidy resolutions. What a different story hers would have been had she been allowed to marry the man she loved in her youth. The book is sprinkled with the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad, the Iranian female poet. Massoumeh quotes to her son, “All my wounds are from love.”
In the end she is faced again with a choice between happiness and respectability and comes to the realization that the expectations of her loved ones have been both her bitterest prison and the hardest to forsake.
Emily Walz is a freelance writer from southwest Minnesota. She now lives in Nanjing, China.