Iranian French author Parisa Reza’s stunning debut, “The Gardens of Consolation’’ unfolds over decades of fascinating Iranian history and culture, from the fall of the Qajar dynasty to the nationalization of oil, all seen through the eyes of one remarkable peasant family.
Reza immediately gives entry to a rare and unknown world, starting in the early 1920s in the remote mountain village of Ghamsar when illiterate teenaged shepherd Sardar Amir meets 9-year-old Talla and decides to marry her when she becomes 12. Both pin their hopes on a simple life, a home of their own in the suburbs of Tehran, and later a child. Though modern readers may balk at the idea of a child bride being so accepting and even excited by the match, Reza understands the culture of the time, and such a thing is hardly unusual. Marriage is both a great hope and a much needed escape from the grief of Talla’s beloved baby sister’s death, caused by her father’s punishment for wetting the bed. The land is rough and unforgiving, too, and Talla, the first female to ever leave the village, vows never to return. But more importantly, the young love between Sardar and Talla is both tender, believable, and unbreakable, as well as being the cornerstone of the novel.
As Iran begins to change, so do the Amirs, who become both disturbed by the suffering they see and exhilarated by modern conveniences. Talla, though, can never bridge the past with the future completely, believing in and fearing ogres and ghosts, seeing signs, omens, and clinging to the old ways. She even embraces the body-enveloping chador because it makes her feel safe, and when Reza Shah forbids the garment in his attempts to modernize Iran, she balks. Why should anyone save God and her husband have authority over her, she wonders? She’s always gotten what she’s wanted by will or tears, and women’s rights seem an unnecessary puzzle to her.
Finally, after many years, to their absolute delight, she and Sardar produce a son, Bahram. Although both Talla and Sardar are illiterate, they want much more for their son. When the shah introduces compulsory free schools, the Amirs know that Bahram, who is bright and special, must go, and he soon shines and is filled with ambition. Bahram pushes to attend 9th grade, and later high school, and because the shah wants a new elite class, Bahram succeeds in his mission.
Bahram goes on to attend prestigious Tehran University, and unlike his apolitical parents, becomes more and more determined to shape his country and himself. He becomes an activist, passionately supporting the reformer Mohammad Mossadegh and getting involved with the National Front, which seeks to throw off foreign involvement in Iranian matters and succeeds in the nationalization of oil.
The novel pulls you in like a waking dream. The writing is lush and evocative. Hills are as “as crumpled as a camel’s hide.” The sweeping upheaval of politics comes at a blinding rush. Iran is invaded by Soviets and the English. The shah goes into hiding and then is brought back. Starving Russians roam Iran, but are denied food by Talla in case they might be infidels. But perhaps the details that resonate the most are the personal ones: the pure wonder of Sardar getting electricity in his house and being able to listen to the magic of the radio in comfort. For the very first time, an astonished Talla rides a bus with her son. We can’t help but feel their amazement at this new world — and how their lives have changed so dramatically.
Still, occasionally, the novel reads like a history lesson and can feel pedantic. Too, Bahram may represent the future, but he still can be disagreeable in his ambition and his callous treatment of women; the way he judges them by their beauty, toys with their affections, and then drops them cruelly is unpleasant. But at its heart, “The Gardens of Consolation’’ is a love story of Sardar and Talla, and a love story to Iran. Politics for the Amirs can be boiled down to the personal, to food, water, and to being together in the beauty of a starlit night. And indeed, this is not so much a story of history, of political upheaval, as a rich, intimate story of people.
THE GARDENS OF CONSOLATION
By Parisa Reza
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Europa, 260 pp., paperback, $16
Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Cruel Beautiful World.’’ She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.