Review published on January 12, 2017.
From the first few sentences of this warm and intelligent novel, beautifully translated by Adriana Hunter, I was captivated by the elegance of the prose, the wonderfully descriptive narrative and the enduring story of Talla, Sardar and their son Bahram. A family saga of exceptional quality.
The Gardens of Consolation takes place over half a century in Iran. Sardar inherits land from his father but he wants to leave the village and make his way in Tehran. Talla is nine when she agrees to marry this man/boy but it is three years before he returns to take his wife to their new life. Talla has never left the little green village in Ghamsar but wants to see the other side of the mountains. Talla knows nothing of the wider world; WWI, or Anglo-Persian Oil or communists or modernisers. One of her first experiences is being frightened by a motorcar. Whilst in Tehran Reza Khan orchestrates a coup ousting the king and becoming Reza Shah.
Sardar rents land in Hadji Agha Ahmad outside Tehran and Talla learns there are masters here not just fathers. The couple work hard to own land and a home, what do kings and politicians matter to a farming family with their own struggles? Talla and Sardar move to Shemiran, there is a Jewish master, Armenian villagers, and aristocrats in their summer homes, life is better. Bahram Amir is born, Sardar is happy in life, he just wants the best for his son. Yet modernisation and change reach even remote peasant communities.
Bahram excels at school as the ‘allies’ invade Iran (WWII), there is an uneasy occupation. Life is unsettled but the family tries to remain normal at the same time. At university Bahram becomes political, beguiled by Mossedegh taking on the English at the UN and Hague over oil nationalisation. He is not grateful to Reza Shah for opportunity in his life, later he sticks with Mossedegh as the Shah flees. The Americans are afraid of Mossedegh and the communists and more upheaval is coming. Women are Bahram’s weakness he is trapped by the old harem mentality, even in the more liberal society that appears to respect women and monogamy which he feels a part of. These are the beginnings of the family journey across the years.
The Gardens of Consolation is a very assured début; often first time novelists seek to impress with their knowledge, where as Reza seamlessly tells her story. The crucial historical context comes alive in the text through the characters, the research is worn lightly, not overpowering the narrative. It is no surprise that this novel won the ‘Prix Senghor’ in 2015, (a prestigious prize for Francophone literature since 2006).
Parisa Reza was born in Tehran but moved with her family to France when she was seventeen and perhaps the joint perspectives of distance and closeness helped to tell this story. Maybe also the advantage of two cultural views.
There are three main characters; Talla – feisty, independent, unworldly, sometimes afraid but also strong, a dedicated mother and wife, all in all a formidable woman I much admired. There is real tragedy in her life but she has an indomitable spirit. Her husband, Sardar, is fair, hard working, compassionate, and ambitious for his family, he is content for himself. Their son, Bahram, is proud and young, burdened with inherited ‘male’ values, he is intelligent but plagued by uncertainties. As Elaheh notes, he is, “lost in a thousand longings and doubts”.
The story shifts effortlessly between characters over time and has some wonderful minor characters; Elaheh, who sees so much and the school master, who has dreams for the future of his young people. Their stories are engaging and you care for these people. Perhaps Reza has been kind to them and this warm depiction of Iranian society ultimately shows that we all share the same fears and hopes – a universal tale of love and life.
Reza looks at how life is tempered by events, in Iran during this period there was extraordinary upheaval and change; migration to the city, family life, emerging political movements, technological developments, and even the advent of formal education for all, most of the people at this time were still illiterate in Iran. How the characters engage with the local issues, the wider society and change, while trying to decide what really matters in life, underpins the narrative.
The Gardens of Consolation is different to the type of émigré literature that is often accusative. Here religion is a comfort, a given in life, restrictive at times but mostly a positive influence and even in the midst of a coup a couple can still sit down to enjoy evening tea. Reza has no axe to grind and offers understanding and compassion for the human experience.
Events are important to the story because through these we see how lives are changed, how things come about, attitudes develop: essentially how the present becomes what it is.
The novel revels in juxtaposition. We are in a land that sounds idyllic, a garden of Eden, but life is not straightforward and can be dark and threatening and mysterious. Change is as inevitable as it is uncertain and when rushed even as a force for good it can have undesirable consequences.
The Gardens of Consolation is a love story that resonates. It reminded me in scope and ambition, though not style, of The Darker Side of Love by Rafik Schami, a Syrian epic told over the decades of the twentieth century. It was a delight to read this novel. Parisa Reza has made a strong start with this novel and I hope to hear more.
The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza
Europa Editions, 12 January, 2017 pbk