Iranian Family Reels from Revolution in Strong Debut Novel
A Contrary review by M. Leigh Knittle

        Dalia Sofer’s debut novel The Septembers of Shiraz explores the fractured lives of post-revolutionary Iran, where members of affluent families vanish as easily as their possessions. The novel begins when Isaac Amin, a wealthy Jewish poet turned jeweler, disappears one day after work. The revolutionary guards physically remove Isaac from his family; yet on some level the Amins have been lost to each other since the revolution began. Sofer conveys the caustic effect of oppression on familial bonds, identity, and friendship through a multi-layered approach: She champions the human spirit in her characters’ ability to make sense of new realities, their capacity to change, and their tenacity in their fight against despair. Still, she admits shades of grey by creating imperfect characters whose beliefs are tested by those who were formerly oppressed during the Shah’s reign.
        Named for the memories that sustain and haunt Isaac during his incarceration, The Septembers of Shiraz recounts Isaac’s interrogation in prison, his wife Farnaz’s tender yet increasingly tense relationship with their housekeeper, his son’s experience as an exile in Brooklyn, his youngest child’s friendship with the daughter of a revolutionary. While Isaac attempts to use logic to secure his release, members of his family struggle to survive in their own newfound realities.
        Sofer captures the feeling one experiences when a seemingly irrevocable and tragic shift in reality occurs:

 “She stands by the iron gate…watching the day unfold — pedestrians walking hurriedly past, cars honking to salvage lost minutes.… Farnaz cannot reconcile the normalcy of the world around her with the collapse of her own.”

        She also captures the denial of lost identity that follows. Isaac’s disappearance collides with the denial Farnaz, Isaac, and some of the affluent felt after the Shah was deposed, when the need to cling to their former identity prevented them from fleeing to the safety of Paris or Geneva. Farnaz’s sister-in-law says, “If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbuktu will understand who we once were?”
        The altered lives of families mirror (albeit in a cracked mirror) the government’s new relationship to its “children.” Through Isaac’s perceptions, Sofer expresses the dysfunctional societal notion of family propagated by the revolutionaries: “This is one of the hardest things to get used to, this business of calling everyone ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ ‘father,’ ‘mother’…. Once there had been guillotines for ‘brothers’ who strayed, and later, there were gulags. Who knows what awaits him here?”
        The author expertly weaves together a child’s seemingly simple view of reality with a youthful intelligence that spurs her to courageous action. Shirin, Isaac’s youngest, pieces together the disappearance of the objects used by her family that form the normalcy of her world.  She hopes her father is merely misplaced along with her Mother’s sapphire ring and the silver teapot, and she risks much to prevent the misplacement of others.
        The novel seems to stumble as it comes to a natural ending but continues, throwing additional obstacles before some characters, prolonging their struggles in a way that initially seems unnecessary. Yet the ultimate conclusion is as riveting, and the characters' revelations as poignant, as in what might have been an earlier ending. The last line seems light compared to the immensity of the journey traveled, but Dalia Sofer writes masterfully, and The Septembers of Shiraz conveys the quantity and magnitude of adversity experienced by those who find their reality so changed. This is outstanding work for a new novelist.

M. Leigh Knittle is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008
The Septembers of Shiraz
by Dalia Sofer
2007, Ecco

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