TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 March 2013
The book, which has won a number of awards, recounts the happenings to an Armenian family living in Abadan in pre-Revolutionary Iran. Clarice and Artoush Ayvazian, a housewife and an executive with the National Iranian Oil Company, have three children, 15-year old Armen and twin girls, Armineh and Arsineh. Their family is completed by Clarice's grumbling mother and her sister, Alice, who is a theatre nurse, overweight and increasingly frustrated that she is not married. Clarice has good memories of her late father and is annoyed by her mother constantly referring to his faults.
One day, the twins bring a new girl from school, who has just moved into the house across the road. Emily Simonian lives with her father, Emile, a widower who is also employed by the oil company, and his mother, a cold 70-year old who is very short in stature.
The interactions between members of these two families are described in a gentle manner from the perspective of Clarice who increasingly becomes dissatisfied with her routine life at home with its focus on her children, garden, a rather unsupportive husband, a sister who is constantly sniping at her and a mother who she sees as preferring her sister.
Everyday life in the Abadan of the 1960s is rather similar to that in Aberdeen in the same era. Artoush refuses to be pushed into buying a new car, despite its problems starting in the mornings, Armen is attracted to Emily, and the twins are constantly trying to find where their brother has hidden their dolls. Clarice, Alice and their mother constantly disagree whilst Artoush and Emile enjoy playing chess together.
Unfortunately, Emile's mother, who is used to a much higher standard of living, controls the life of her son and grand-daughter and is not in good health. Despite making approaches and inviting the Simonians to their house, Clarice and the grandmother do not get on.
When Clarice finds out that Emile enjoys reading, she finds herself questioning the compromises she has made in her life and the opportunities that she has missed. Alice sees Emile as a potential husband and pressurises her sister to make an introduction and this adds to her dissatisfaction. Clarice looks forward to her meetings with Emile.
The author is very good at describing the banality of everyday family life and the inconsequential matters that can start a marital squabble;most often they do not because Artoush ignores the opportunities to respond and there is a great deal of Clarice's imagined answering back to her husband and other characters.
Artoush's political activities are deftly hinted at and the relationships between the upper middle classes and their servants and shop-owners are blended into a convincing background as are the ways in which a large company looked after its more senior employees at that time.
Partly through introducing a Dutch character, Joop Hansen, the author describes a great deal of Armenian history, culture and food. Through Arnoush's secretary, Mrs Nurollahi, the author touches on the beginnings of a women's movement in Iran and describes how the Armenian community were organised to support schools and their poorer compatriots, and to maintain their nationhood in diaspora by remembering historical events, not least Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24th, marking the beginning of the murder of Armenians in Istanbul in 1915.
The book, originally published in Iran in 2002,has been translated by Franklin Lewis and was first published in English in 2012. Only the use of words and phrases like "gotten" and "shooting the breeze" jarred on this British reader.
Not a novel for a lover of action and pace, and the book ends with one situation resolved, one left for the reader to think about and a new romance beginning - the way that life's doors open and close. I confess that, once or twice, I was a little frustrated with Clarice's indecision but, looking back, that was just part of her character.
There is a helpful Glossary at the end of the book which supplements the mention of foods, customs, public figures and locations mentioned in the text.