By Dalia Sofer
Ecco. 336 pp. $24.95.
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Reviewed by Christine Ma
Inquirer Staff Writer
nolead ends Few of us could fathom being arrested without knowing the charges. But in post-revolution Iran, this was often a reality.
In her gripping debut novel, Dalia Sofer follows the story of Isaac Amin, a well-off Jewish jeweler in Tehran, and his family as they struggle to cope and survive after news of Isaac's arrest. Days after he is thrown in prison, he discovers that he is accused of being a Zionist spy. Like his fellow prisoners, Isaac and his family had close connections to the shah, who was deposed in the 1979 revolution. In fact, he and his wife, Farnaz, had even attended the shah's coronation, a lavish affair that hard-liners would find vulgar now.
Alternating characters chapter by chapter, Sofer creates a page-turner that leaves you wanting to know more. Each chapter follows how each of Isaac's family members - Farnaz; his 9-year-old daughter, Shirin; and his son, Parviz, a college student living abroad - deals with his arrest.
Farnaz spends her time trying to find her husband in the prison system and then trying to rid their home of anything authorities could use as evidence against Isaac. She also is paranoid that her housekeeper, Habibeh, whose son is a Revolutionary Guard, has stolen her cherished ring and teapot, and that Habibeh has inside knowledge about her husband's imprisonment.
Shirin copes in a way a 9-year-old only could. During visits to her friend's home, she steals files from her friend's father, a high-ranking prison official, including one on Isaac's brother, hoping that every file stolen would be worth a man's freedom.
Far away in New York, Parviz realizes there's trouble at home, though at first he doesn't know the details. He knows only that his parents haven't sent money to cover his rent, and he starts to work in his landlord's hat shop, catering to the Hasidic Jewish community, about which, despite his own religion, he knows very little.
Sofer explores a number of issues, including coping after the loss of a family member, religion and its intricacies, family ties, and the injustices and chaos of the Islamic regime, but she is most successful in portraying the Iranians' shattered belief that life would be better after the shah fled. In a conversation with Farnaz, Habibeh describes her son's beliefs: "Why should some people live like kings and the rest like rats? And why should the wealthy, enamored with Europe and the West, dictate how the whole country should dress, talk, live?"
But a better life wasn't the result. Isaac's cellmate Mehdi, imprisoned for being a tudeh, or communist, says: "This regime isn't what we fought for, you know? This is even worse than the old monarchy."
And Isaac also sees that "this revolution, like all others, wished to turn the citizens into one big family." People were encouraged to call one another "brother" or "sister." Instead, the regime divided families, and brothers turned against brothers. In Isaac's situation, his desire to become closer to his family is hampered by his detainment. Isaac, a workaholic, had vowed to spend more time with his wife to make up for the months of lack of communication. Then he is arrested later that day.
Sofer's story was inspired by her father's own imprisonment in a Tehran prison after the revolution. And she crafts the ending to her novel in a manner that opens up the possibility of continuing to follow the family's lives in a sequel, which, if this work is a sign, will also be a delight to read.