Faranji Girl by Ashley Dartnell
Ashley grows up in an alienated world of contrasts between Iran and the USA, and in the tumult of a dysfunctional family - a volatile, highly strung, attractive, chain-smoking mother, who loves her children but treats them abominably, and a selfish, self-centred father who devotes himself to his strange world of engineering and earth-diggers on the edge of the Caspian Sea. The book is often disjointed and erratic (reflecting the chaotic life Ashley is forced to lead), but, throughout, it is heartfelt and perceptive, creating a compelling portrait of a family disintegrating under economic, social, political, and personal stress.
Ashley and her two younger brothers are thrown from pillar to post, their early years spent in Iran, poor but relatively happy, though frightened by their mother's constant disaffection and dissatisfaction. Then, their father imprisoned for debt in Tehran, mother and children flee back to the States to the grandparents in Connecticut, who also prove to be a dysfunctional couple, and the last people to help create stability for the alienated family. Genie, Ashley's mother, somehow holds things precariously together, moving the family to Florida where she manages to find a house, a teaching job, and send the children to school. Ashley portrays the poverty of life in Florida where, despite the sun and sea, the family lived on a precarious economic edge. Her mother is lost without male support and there is none coming from the children's father so she leans on the wrong kind of men, such as Tom Glenn, a violent alcoholic. After five years, she packs up and moves the family back to Iran and Ashley's father, only to find worse conditions, Ashley's father working illegally in Iran.
Dartnell makes enough money, despite his illegal status, for the family to survive, struggling erratically in constrained circumstances, and there are searing stories full of the insight of a young person's untrammelled vision: the contrasts between America and Iran from clean/dirty toilets to the oppression of women and honour killing in Iran and racial prejudices in America. Ashley creates vivid pictures of the dangers of life under the Shah's repressive regime, decorating her narrative with wonderful similes and metaphors, spot-on adjectives and lively dialogue. After returning to Iran from Florida when Ashley is 12 she describes in graphic detail the family in Esfahan in a particularly revealing chapter `Mad Dogs and Englishmen'. The images are immediate and striking: the peasant villagers living primitive lives contrast with objective political narrative and family dialogue summing up the privations of poverty and occasional pleasures. Ashley is adept at personal analysis, reflecting her own frustrations and predicaments, and observes with detachment the people surrounding her with honest realism. Her intelligence and yearning for books and even school, from which she is so often deprived, are always manifest.
The neglect of her parents is apparent in every chapter, yet the love between mother and children shines through all the dirt and debris. She captures a young girl's confusions and complexities as she grows from a child to a woman and she manages to effect a change in tone at each stage, so that in the early chapters she sounds like a 9 year old, in the middle the teenager has her tantrums and torments; in the last part the student emerges, moulded by her myriad experiences, as a mature, pretty (she gets modelling assignments) intelligent (she gains her literature degree from Bryn Mawr), and capable woman, with her own family. Ashley describes her father's idealism and fantasies, adventurous spirit, and devotion to Iran which create a colourful and attractive character, but she is constantly aware of his importunity and neglect of his family which is unforgivable and she loses any illusions as he lets her down continuously. Her description of her father's latter days is dispassionate. Despite her mother's wilfulness and instability, Genie emerges as surprisingly strong, blown by the winds of life, who tried to plot her own course but was always thwarted by the conflict of being beautiful and intelligent, a born teacher, but unable to realise her potential, a subtext critique of the position of women of her period, in her own way oppressed by her society as Iranian women are oppressed by theirs. As she reveals the secrets of her life to Ashley towards the end of the book, the daughter is finally able to accept her for who she is and in a touching reconciliatory coda, she forgives her mother.
Faranji Girl is a remarkable book and a fascinating read. Ashley Dartnell has written not only an exciting and evocative story of a family's fortunes and misfortunes, but an emotional and sensitive memoir of a fractured childhood and adolescence in a turmoil of personal and political upheaval with a touching mother-daughter relationship at its core; an authentic saga of a hybrid family in a hybrid world. This book offers a glimpse of mid 20th-century Western versus Muslim societies, a bygone era, but one which is still acutely relevant to our 21st-century world of conflict between East and West. I thoroughly enjoyed Ashley's roller-coaster narrative and I recommend it unreservedly.
Once this book is tidied up and properly proof-read, corrected, and edited, it will prove to be a successful seller with a wide-ranging appeal.