on 17 June 2013
This beautifully written debut novel by Sahar Delijani is set in Iran, covering a period between 1983 and 2011. In the pages of this powerful book, we read of the lives of a number of people caught up and changed forever by the events occurring in Iran between these years.
Following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s, many thousands of the population became disillusioned with the new regime. Many decided that they needed to make their feelings and thoughts known, but their protests led to mass imprisonment, torture and execution. In "Children of the Jacaranda Tree" we follow the lives of a handful of these early protesters. We read of the impact of their arrests on their parents. We also meet and follow some of the babies and young people whose parents were imprisoned, tortured and killed in the 1980s, seeing the ways that their lives have been shaped by earlier events.
I was completely drawn in by this novel. I was stunned by the brutality of the "Brothers" and "Sisters" who worked in the prisons - not only physical cruelty inflicted upon the prisoners, but mental and emotional torture. I was truly shocked by the execution episode; it was not a detailed horrific description, but its starkness shook me to the core. It was interesting to see how the younger generation dealt with their history and how it impacted on their lives.
This is a book that I would recommend reading in hardback or paperback, as there are plenty of characters to remember and it's not always easy to skip back to check on a name or link when reading an eBook. Having said that, for me, this has been a powerful, shocking, but ultimately hopeful read. I shall never again be able to disregard events in Iran - this insight into the personal lives of Iranians has given much food for thought. This is a book that I will not forget.
I received this from NetGalley, free of charge, in return for my honest review.
I have procrastinated in writing this review because I really wanted to give the book five stars. Unfortunately, I struggled to keep all the characters and their relationships in my head and the time line of the narrative tended to be erratic. In spite of this, the images left in my mind paint a powerful picture of the hardships and sacrifices made by three generations of Iranians from 1983 to the present day. It is a particularly relevant book, given the recent events of the Arab Spring.
The central character is Neda, who represents the life of the author. Both were born in the infamous Evin prison, of mothers who had been imprisoned for their activities during the time of the Iranian Revolution. Within a few months of her birth, Neda is removed from her mother and taken to live with her grandmother.
The novel cleverly illustrates many differing outlooks and positions, from the grandparents who cared for the children of the imprisoned, through those in the prisons, to the children themselves.
No one knew how long they would be detained, if their loved ones were still alive, or whether anyone would ultimately be released. Many prisoners were randomly slaughtered and while some were released, many were never seen again.
This then, raised the question as to what to tell their children, whether to admit the awful truth or protect them with fabrications. As these children became adults they had to reconcile their situations and live their lives.
They are now in their late twenties and living through another revolution, dubbed the Arab Spring.
At each stage, many people decided to leave Iran for other, more peaceful, parts of the world and so, a whole new generation of displaced Iranians has evolved.
This book has a profound message of survival. It reveals the struggle that has been going on in Iran over the last thirty years and which is largely unknown by the majority of The West.
I'd recommend it, but suggest that you take notes while reading, to help keep characters and dates in their correct places.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (4 *)
My Prison, My Home by Haleh Esfandiari (3*)
The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer (5*)
I wanted very much to like this novel as it's about a very important and interesting subject - the fate of the men and women involved in the Iranian Revolution who did not like the new regime, their sufferings afterwards, and what happened to their children, many of whom emigrated from Iran. Set partly in the 1980s and partly in 2009, Delijani's novel tells the story of a whole group of male and female revolutionaries, and of several of their children, looking at the immediate and long term effects of revolution and religious repression.
It should work, but the novel has several serious problems. First, there are too many characters, and few of them are explored in any detail. This means that it's very hard to empathize with the bulk of them. People appear and then vanish, minor characters who promise to become major ones later in the novel remain minor, major characters suddenly disappear never to be heard of again. A baby born in prison in the first chapter crops up again as an adult woman in Turin in the final chapter - and we learn little of her life in between. Her mother Azar, the first narrator, fades out of the story for long periods. Another young woman in Turin, Sheida, takes centre stage briefly but then all but vanishes from the story. The 'prison snoop' of Chapter 1 is never given enough space to explain what she did. As so few of the characters are sketched in any detail, it becomes hard to differentiate between them - Sheida, Neda and a couple of the other young girls are practically interchangeable, as are Dante and Reza for long sections. In addition, the setting for much of the novel feels oddly vague. Apart from the prison (which I see another reviewer thinks was not portrayed with great accuracy) there's only a limited sense of what Tehran is like, religion doesn't seem to feature enough, and the jacaranda tree is so heavily symbolized that it starts to become a rather sentimental device. Oddly, Delijani seemed happiest writing about Italy, her adopted country, where the descriptions WERE pretty vivid.
There's also some problems with language - Delijani is attempting to write in a very poetic style, but instead it often seems clumsy and pretentious, with some odd usage of phrases. I'm sure in an early chapter someone's eyebrows 'strutted across their face' or something similar. Later, the force of a woman's hair 'bursts her kerchief' (as hair so often does - or not), someone blushes to the 'root' of their hair ('roots'?) and a woman walks away with the last words of her speech 'lolling' after her. It feels a bit forced, and doesn't invite one into the narrative.
All this is a pity, because there are some truly excellent passages in this book, and some wonderful short scenes. The young man (Amir?) visited in prison by his wife Maryam, later accompanied by their infant daughter; Sheida's bus ride from the airport back into Turin, Neda and Reza's snack by Turin conservatory and excited conversation; the father patiently making a bracelet of date stones in prison for his daughter - these and others I will remember and savour - and I might well buy another volume by this writer as a result. However, the disjointed nature of this book (would it have been better as short stories, as she originally intended) and the rather pretentious clumsy writing would discourage me from reading it again.
three and a half stars.
More a collection of essays, this novel introduces the reader to the harsh reality of Iran, post revolution, from 1983 onwards. A large number of characters populate the book, across all ages, and at the beginning there is a list of players detailing who is related to whom.
Evin Prison in Tehran held the political prisoners who had started to make their voices heard in int he country, and follows the lives of various characters up to 2011. From the opening chapter of the book the harsh reality of being confined to prison is scorched on the page. Azar is in the throes of labour, separated from her husband Ismael, and the tortuous birth and conditions are unspeakable. She is supported by one of the political ‘Sisters’ who accompanies her on her journey through labour, and takes every opportunity to humiliate and punish.
The corridors of the prison echo with the slap of sandals and the swish of the chador and those simple noises can instill fear into the assembled prisoners. A tour of the prison takes us to the latrines, to the interrogation rooms and to Ismael, who is making a bracelet out of collected date stones for his newborn daughter. Beyond the prison walls, life goes on, lovers meet, the curfew descends. Some flee to foreign countries for safety and look back on a time of hardship and cruelty. The ripple effect of past atrocities extends into the lives of families right into the 21st Century.
The author states in the book that she wanted to collect the experiences of her own family and make them concrete in written form, but as fiction. It is written from the heart and is an eye opening look at a country in turmoil, where the value of human life had sunk low. In its own way it is a very poignant memoir and a salutary account of human cruelty.
Where it falls down a little is that it feels like separate stories tenuously brought together, and thus it can, at times, lack cohesion. And as the reader opens the book the list of characters, although helpful, feels daunting at the outset and it is all too easy to get caught up in getting the relationships straight. They form the skeleton of the book that supports the flesh of the story.
This is a good and passionate introductory read for anyone who is unfamiliar with this period of Iranian history.
on 16 September 2013
Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delihani is a book that focuses on the Iranian Revolution- more specifically the years between 1983 and 2011, and the fall of the Shah, as well as the chaos that followed.
"Azar sat on the corrugated iron floor of a van, huddled against the wall. The undulating street made the car sway from side to side, swinging her this way and that. With her free hand, she clasped on to something that felt like a railing. The other hand lay on her hard, bulging belly, which contracted and strained, making her breathing choppy, irregular. A heat wave of pain spouted from somewhere in her backbone and burst through her body. Azar gasped, seizing the chador wrapped around her, gripping so hard that her knuckles turned white. With every turn, she was thrashed against the walls. With every bump and pothole, her body was sent flying toward the ceiling, the child in her belly rigid, cringing. The blindfold over her eyes was damp with sweat."
Children of the Jacaranda Tree is less of a plot based book and more a collection of intertwining, related stories. They all share the same general plot and are all part of the overall story, but the way the book is set up makes them seem more individual and personal, though this book is not a collection of short stories- as may have been implied.
Each chapter begins or continues a person or group of people's stories. So every time a new chapter begins, a new story or a continued story is told. Within each chapter the POV switches constantly too, but it's done pretty seamlessly (for the most part), so that it never becomes distracting or confusing. Throughout the book we hear the stories of Azar (who is a heavily pregnant woman being held in Evin Prison in Tehran, and is going into labour), Leila and Maman Zinat (a daughter and mother (respectively), looking after their relations' children while they do their time in prison. Throughout the years, the children include Omid, Sara, Forugh, Dante, and many others who need help. All young children waiting for their parents to return- some of whom have never known their mother or father. The focus of the story varies depending on the chapter, but each character gets their own arc. Another chapter focuses on Amir- in Komiteh Moshtarak Detention Centre, Evin Prison in Tehran. He has been imprisoned for 45 days and is constantly blindfolded. His wife, Maryam, was pregnant when he was arrested. The story also follows from Maryam's POV- ranging from the year Amir was taken (1983) to her current life in 2009. Another focuses on Donya- whose mother was imprisoned long ago, finally released and then emigrated with her daughter to America- where Donya's been for the past 15 years. The final chapter (and alternate POV) is Neda's story (or part of it), and is the story most similar to the author's own (at least partly). Both were born in Tehran's Evin Prison in 1983.
However, the author was raised by her mother in California. Her father was imprisoned for at least seven years after she was born. She and her husband now live in Turin, Italy- another important place in this book. In fact, the entire story takes place in either Tehran or Turin.
Azar's story is perhaps the shortest, but also the first- so one of the most impactful. Her story sets the tone for the rest of the book. When we find her she has been prison for a few months, after she and her husband, Ismael, were arrested for being political activists- protesting against the regime in 1983. Iran has been at war with Iraq for three years, and Saddam was Iraq's leader at the time.
Her story tells of her experience with labour, childbirth and having a baby in prison. Her child brings new hope to her and the women who share her cell. Azar has no idea what is going on outside her tiny cell, or what happened to her husband, but for now she has a little piece of both of them in her hands.
In her cell there are many other women- including Parisa (who is also pregnant and has a son waiting for her outside the prison)- Omid.
Time skips are frequent in this book, and each chapter can go either forward or backward between any year from 1983 to 2011, though usually in substantial increments. The story spans three generations of people, who are all interconnected in one way or another, sometimes in multiple ways. The chapters alternate between years and characters- with the same time period retold multiple times from different POVs. Between 1988 there is a sudden time skip to 2008, and the next generation of characters, which mostly fills in some gaps left from the previous generation's characters, and also sets up the generation to follow.
There are a few motifs played through the book. The jacaranda tree is an obvious one, but other motifs include butterflies and pregnancy (obviously symbolic of new life while the old is taken and/or abused). Another strong theme of this book is the power of memories. That decades can pass, but the memories can still feel fresh in the mind- still have the strength to cripple you or lift you.
This book is more a story of relationships, which can make for a slow-paced book as there is little plot. It is more a story about how much a person can impact another's life. How relationships are born through necessity or by chance, and how they last or change- regardless of whether the person is with you any longer.
In its own words, this quote from the book perfectly describes what the story consists of and is about:
"the mysterious ripples of love and pain, of breaking and blossoming, of past and future."
There are always two sides to everything. There cannot be love without hate, or a future without a past. There are many different kinds of relationship and this book explores a lot of them. What must it be like, to be a child who is more comfortable with other women than your own mother- for her to be a stranger to you. Childrens' relationships to one another, and how they change as they age, along with whether they grow up together or not are explored frequently in this book, along with the relationship to the women who raised them compared to those who birthed them.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
The war and regime are more of a necessary plot point to place the characters in the needed conditions, as well as to immerse the reader in the truth of events. These characters and situations may be fictional, but they most likely happened. There were thousands of people killed or hurt during their protests of the regime- the regime that was meant to free them all from the the fallen Shah. In 1988, 4000-5000 young men and women were executed in the months of July and August. The committee interviewed all political prisoners and ordered executions of those deemed "unrepentant." Twenty years later, and the next generation is still suffering the country's rule, but in different ways, and the opposing side are more open- killing on the streets instead of behind the walls of a prison.
During the chaos surrounding the demonstrations and loss of the country's leader, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein decided to take advantage of the disruption that followed the wake of the Revolution by invading territories previously taken by Iraq during the Shah's rule. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, starting the Iran-Iraq War, which the Iranian Regime used as an excuse to execute many of it's own people. By 1982, the Iranian forces had managed to drive out the Iraqi army. In 1987, Iran tried to close the Persian Gulf- thereby stopping oil flow to Iraq, after almost seven years at war with the country. In 1988, Khomeini accepted a truce created by the UN, and the war ended. Iranian casualties were estimated to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000. Following the war, President Rafsanjani concentrated on keeping to the ideology of the regime, while trying to rebuild the country. He served until 1997, when Khatami took over. Khatami is not generally thought to have been successful in freeing his country. In 2005, presidential elections brought Ahmadinejad to power. He was again voted in 2009, winning over Mousavi- though there were conspiracy theories that provoked the 2009-2010 Iranian election protests in (not just Iran), but many major capitals in the West too.
Out of all the different stories told, I think Amir's is my favourite. It is easily the darkest, and most chilling, but it's also very endearing in terms of Amir himself- which is why it affected me the most. I cared for all the characters, but his story resonated most with me for being short, but effective.
All the stories are dark (as can be expected), but quite how much varies on the story. Some are simply tinted with dark memories or fears, while others are seeped in it- the inescapable fate.
This is a book that ends on a slightly hopeful note, that describes the power of memories, relationships and cleansing- revealing everything to the people that matter, that need to know, rather than keeping it inside and letting it fester- to slowly eat away at you.
A well-rounded story, filled with as much love and comfort, as it is hate, fear and hurt. With as much joy and new life, as pain and loss. It's not necessarily a powerful story- despite it's subject material- but it is a real one. It is based on fact and spreading the word goes a long way to helping end the issues. I wasn't as deeply moved by the story as I thought I would be, but I did enjoy the book. It may be that the switching chapters/POVs makes it hard to not distance yourself when the book already does that. Some of the characters are mentioned in others' stories, but then it feels distanced, rather than if we followed one or a couple people's stories, but were with them for longer. There are so many characters in this book that, it's not so much that it doesn't work (as all their stories are interesting), but that the emotion is filtered too much. With so many people to care about, feeling so many different things at one time (thanks to the time skips), the characters go from extreme loss to falling in love, to the happiness of a well loved child, to rekindled relationships in a short time span. It's a little like an emotional rollercoaster- with so many ups and downs going by so quickly that you don't really have time to immerse yourself completely in any of them.
However, I did like this book. I wouldn't go as far as to say I loved it, but I would read it again, and I would recommend it, so clearly there is enough to be gotten out of it (in my opinion) to take the time to read it.
Disclaimer: I received this book through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.
I was hoping that this book would be as exciting as The Kite Runner, or as moving as Mornings in Jenin, but sadly it didn't deliver for me. It's more of a collection of short stories than a novel, and if there is a thread about a tree, I couldn't find it. The jacaranda tree is mentioned a few times, but by so many different characters that it's a bewildering miasma of thoughts and impressions. The tales leap in and out of Tehran, diving in and out of decades, leaving me at least feeling thoroughly confused. Of course, I may be missing something, but...
So what is the book actually about? Well, it covers life in Iran after the revolution in 1980 or thereabouts and follows the fortunes of families torn apart by their dissident members' incarceration by the religious police. This is definitely a thread, but it's not strong enough to really bind the stories all together. Maybe it was the unfamiliar names of the protagonists, but by the end, I had no idea who I was reading about any more - there was just too many of them. So I've been left not really feeling able to recommend this book. Sure, it's BEAUTIFULLY written with lovely flowing prose that really makes you feel like you're there, from the fetid prison cells to the back yards and gardens of the families, but for me, that's just not enough - I needed something more of a backbone and this book doesn't have it.