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Love and Revolution in Iran

Half a Cup of Sand and Sky, by Nadine Bjursten (book review)

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Alder House Books
October 17, 2023
English Paperback
402 pages

NOTE: Review Contains spoilers.

This deeply affecting novel follows an Iranian woman named Amineh from girl to grandmother, from her parents’ rose farm in rural Qamsar district, and then to Tehran, and abroad. The farm had prospered by supplying European perfumers with heavenly fragrance. But when her parents perished in an auto accident for which Amineh blamed herself for causing, all that changed. A cousin took over the farms, and Amineh left her village to attend university in Tehran, determined to write a novel about her family’s life together, but kept putting it off. At a political meeting protesting the Shah, she meets Farzad, and older man who works for the state atomic energy administration and heads an international organization dedicated to combating nuclear proliferation. He is immediately taken with Amineh, courts her, and they marry, but instead of happiness Amineh feels emptiness and disappointment. Farzad is a good man but a workaholic who puts his home life second, and Amineh starts to resent his frequent travel to meetings abroad, imagining he may be having an affair with a female colleague.

The novel unfolds in 1977 and concludes in 2009, after much political and emotional tumult. So much changes in that time: Her daughter Sara and son Sohrab are now young adults, and all have exiled themselves from Iran. Farzad died just before they fled and Amineh is now involved with Patrik, a Swedish colleague of Farzad who has long confessed his love for her, who feels tenderly toward him. Even though Amineh finds Patrik compassionate, kind, and compatible, his expressed devotion disturbed her, even when she was angry with Farzad. But in one telling passage in chapter 58, Patrik is visiting and offers to fix supper, the always circumspect Amineh allows her feelings to coalesce:

As Patrik told Amineh what he required, Amineh thought of the alternative universe she would experience in a life with Patrik. It struck her then how much of her life was spent conforming to the outside world and discounting the inward life that yearned for fulfillment, that longed to break free. Her job, it seemed, had always been to stem the flow of that surging water, to lock it in on all sides and trust no cracks would develop to ruin everything.

What ruins almost everything is Farzard’s second heart attack and the necessity to flee her country before the religious police close in on her. Amineh never finished that novel about her family’s life, but in exile begins a new one that depicts the events she has lived through. It is almost as if her novel is the one we have just read, casting Half A Cup of Sand and Sky almost as autofiction, so much does Bjursten seem to identify with her protagonist, at least as a writer.

We learn about the weary work of nuclear disarmament advocates — of which Bjursten is one, being a former editor of the journal Arms Control Today. During her tenure there she says she recoiled at hearing Iran, one of the world’s oldest and most peaceable cultures, being derided as an “axis of evil.” Beyond that motivation, the book doesn’t say why Bjursten chose to immerse herself in Iranian history, Persian culture, poetry, and cuisine, but I for one am glad she did.

The dozen or so characters we encounter are well drawn, even the one adversary, a police informant. One man in particular, Farzad’s uncle, Jalalod-Din, in whose house she and Farzad would live for several decades, takes the role of the sage, dispensing traditional wisdom with kindness and humility. Amineh turns to him often for moral support, and misses him terribly when she is forced to flee the country for London, where her brother Saede helps to establish her and her children.

While making and receiving food is an important part of human life, some readers will learn more than they wanted to know about Persian cuisine, as meal preparations are frequently, lovingly described, in cookbook detail. Another recurrent theme is Amineh’s feelings of inadequacy. Her frequent expressions of angst, along with the many endearing though quotidian interactions she includes, slow the story, at least for this reader.

It takes most of the novel’s 82 chapters for Amineh to come out of her shell, but when she does, she seems to have found contentment at last, even in exile. But even before then, you will have been immersed in a world you knew little of that you will come to care about, and that is just what the author seems to have hoped for.

An impressive (and award-winning) debut novel.

Published inBook ReviewPoliticsReviewWriting

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