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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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‘The Colour’ by Rose Tremain *****

I chose Rose Tremain’s The Colour for the penultimate stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Set in New Zealand, The Colour is the first of Tremain’s novels which I have read; before this, I had only encountered one of her short story collections.  The Daily Telegraph calls her ‘one of the finest writers in English’, and this sentiment seems to be echoed by many reviewers.

9780099425151The central characters in The Colour are married couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone.  They choose to migrate from Norfolk to New Zealand in 1864, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, ‘in search of new beginnings and prosperity’.  Soon after they construct their house, Joseph finds small pieces of gold in the local creek, and is ‘seized by a rapturous obsession with the voluptuous riches awaiting him deep in the earth’.  He then sets off alone, with the destination of New Zealand’s Southern Alps on his mind; there are a series of newly-discovered goldfields there, and he joins an enormous migration of men in order to try and make his fortune.  The blurb declares the novel ‘by turns both moving and terrifying’, and describes it as being ‘about a quest for the impossible, an attempt to mine the complexities of love and explore the sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of happiness.’

Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.

It feels as though the author is intimately acquainted with her characters, and their every wish and whim.  When describing Joseph in the novel’s early stages, for instance, Tremain writes: ‘He turned away from his mother and looked admiringly at this new wife of his, kneeling by the reluctant fire.  And he felt his heart suddenly fill to the very core with gratitude and affection…  Joseph wanted to cross the room and put his arms around Harriet and gather her hair into a knot in his hand.  He wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and tell her the one thing that he would never be able to admit to her – that she had saved his life.’  Harriet, too, feels fully formed, particularly given her slightly unusual and non-conformist character: ‘But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange…  She wanted to see her own hand in everything.  No matter if it took a long time.  No matter if her skin was burned in the summer heat.  No matter if she had to learn each new task like a child.  She had been a governess for twelve years.  Now, she had travelled an ocean and stood in a new place, but she wanted to go still further, into a wilderness.’

The Colour feels ultimately realistic from its beginning.  It is filled with fraught discussions, and the darkness and loneliness which such a new life can bring with it.  The cultural information is rich, and, particularly along with Tremain’s descriptions, paints a wonderful and tangible picture.  I did find the ending slightly problematic, but it was still very enjoyable nevertheless, and I certainly struggled to put it down.  Immersive and beautifully executed, The Colour is a believable and very human novel, which I highly recommend.  I cannot wait to read more books by Tremain.

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‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career.  The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it.  The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.

The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said.  Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’

Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived9780753828182 a life of sacrifice’.  She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’.  She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children.  At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close.  The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her.  Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’

The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’.  Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search.  Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up.  You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days.  You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’

So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment.  This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story.  So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years.  Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious.  To you, Mother was always Mother.  It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.  Mother was Mother.  She was born as Mother.  Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood.  From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable.  Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.

Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’.  This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration.  Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman.  The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality.  Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.

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‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung ****

I have wanted to read Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father, for years, and was able to schedule it as the Cambodia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.   This work, which details Ung’s experiences with the Cambodian genocide, is subtitled ‘A daughter of Cambodia remembers’, and is an incredibly poignant record of a young life spoiled, first by civil war, and then by a dictatorship.

Spending her formative years, and losing half of her family, during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seems as vivid for Ung now as it was at the time.  The second youngest of seven children born to a high-ranking government official, Ung led a prosperous life in Phnom Penh.  When the Khmer Rouge Army marched into the city in April 1975, Ung and her family had to flee, moving from one village to another in order to keep hidden; she was just five years old.  Later, the family had to split up almost entirely in order to enable them a stronger chance of survival.  Through various means – ‘execution, starvation, disease, and forced labour’ – the Khmer Rouge is thought to have killed almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population, estimated at a horrifying 2 million citizens.9780756984823

First published in 2000, Ung begins her recollections at the point of being driven out of her home in 1975.  The memoir spans just five years, but is incredibly tumultuous.  Ung has chosen to present her memoir using the present tense, which gives it a real sense of urgency.  From the very beginning, Ung’s childish innocence of the time shines through: ‘Pa always defends me – to everybody.  He often says that people just don’t understand how cleverness works in a child and that all these troublesome things I do are actually signs of strength and intelligence.  Whether or not Pa is right, I believe him.  I believe everything he tells me.’  The prose continues in this rather simplistic manner throughout; as she tells her story, Ung seems to inhabit the voice of her childhood.

The cultural information which Ung imparts alongside her own memoirs is fascinating.  There is a finely honed sense of place and atmosphere throughout.  When they are forced to flee, Ung makes clear that every family, no matter their position or standing, wwere driven out of cities all over Cambodia over the course of several days: ‘People pour out of their homes and into the streets, moving very slowly…  Everywhere, people scream their good-byes to those who choose to stay behind; tears pour from their eyes…  the world moves in hurried confusion from the city.’  The landscape changes rapidly as the family leave Phnom Penh in their truck: ‘… the wide, paved boulevard gives way to windy, dusty roads that are no more than wagon trails.  Tall elephant grass and prickly, brown brush have replaced Phnom Penh’s blooming flowers and tall trees.’

Despite her age, Ung is able to understand the roots of what drives her family away from all they know: ‘Keav [her older sister] tells me the soldiers claim to love Cambodia and its people very much.  I wonder then why they are this mean if they like us so much.  I cheered for them earlier today, but now I am afraid of them.’  Her family live in constant fear, and this trickles down to Ung.  She writes: ‘At five years old, I am beginning to know what loneliness feels like, silent and alone and suspecting that everyone wants to hurt me.’  The young Ung has so much strength and determination, which is incredible given the conditions she is forced to live under.

First They Killed My Father is harrowing, and incredibly moving.  Ung describes, along with her own experiences, those things which affected all of her fellow Cambodians.  So much changed; religion was banned, and children were made to work instead of pursuing their education.  People were made to live under horrendous conditions: ‘The population in the village is growing smaller by the day.  Many people have died, mostly from starvation, some from eating poisonous food, others killed by soldiers.  Our family is slowly starving to death and yet, each day, the government reduces our food ration.  Hunger, always there is hunger.  We have eaten everything that is edible, from rotten leaves on the ground to the roots we dig up.’

As time passes, Ung becomes almost entirely desensitised to the death and suffering around her.  She does, however, still retain some knowledge of the wonder of the world, which she was familiar with during her time in Phnom Penh: ‘The next evening, while sitting with [her brother] Kim outside on the steps of our hut, I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it.  It is still dark and the shimmering sunset of red, gold, and purple over the horizon makes the sky look magical.  Maybe there are gods living up there after all.  When are they going to come down and bring peace to our land?’  First They Killed My Father is a startling and important record of a ruined childhood, which I would urge everyone to read.

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Around the World in 80 Books: Three More I Didn’t Enjoy

I have encountered some real gems on this year’s Around the World in 80 Books challenge, but as I half expected when I began, there are quite a few books which I just did not get on with.  I am nearing the end of my challenge, and thought that I would collect together the reviews of three books which I ended up giving up on.

 

9789814346207The Bondmaid by Catherine Lim (Singapore)
I had hopes that The Bondmaid would resemble work by Lisa See or Amy Tan, but was unfortunately rather disappointed in this respect. I’ve said this about a few books of late, but The Bondmaid felt purposely complex with regard to its long sentences, and range of less common vocabulary; essentially, it was overwritten.

A lot of the sentences, despite their length, did not say a great deal; for instance: ‘In his time, the author too had stood, trembling, in punitive assembly with his siblings, and his father before him, in a long tradition of that cruelty, not just of parents, but of deities and gods themselves in their temples and river shrines, which sees fit to visit upon all the sins of one.’ This prose style really put me off, particularly when it was contrasted with short paragraphs, consisting of just one or two very simplistic sentences. The dialogue, too, felt unimaginative and matter-of-fact; the whole novel felt ultimately clumsy. The Bondmaid flits about far too much in time, and whilst I did find the cultural information interesting, I felt from the beginning that the story could have been far better handled than it was in actuality.  You can probably see now why I gave up on it.

 

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia) 9781905802142
The Gift of Rain, which is set on the Malaysian island of Penang, has been on my Kindle for a long time. I have not read anything else by Tan, but his debut novel seems to be rather admired, judging by the reviews here on Goodreads.

From the outset, I found the prose rather overwritten, with the odd awkward paragraph of very matter-of-fact writing; there was simply no balance to it at all. The plot felt meandering from several pages in too, and issues were circled around rather a lot with no real conclusion. The Gift of Rain is long and rambling; whilst I expected it to be really absorbing, I never really found myself getting into the story. The dialogue was stilted, and the depth which I anticipated was simply not here. Whilst there are undoubtedly a lot of descriptions here, Penang never felt vivid; neither did the characters, who did not feel at all realistic to me. The Gift of Rain is a laborious tome, which I became rather frustrated with. I did not have enough interest in the novel as it progressed to read past the 10% mark.

 

9780380018178The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (Australia)
The Thorn Birds has been on my Kindle for such a long time, after purchasing it as part of a Kindle Daily Deal some years ago. I must have done this solely because the novel features on the Virago Modern Classics list; nothing about the plot particularly interests me, and that is probably why it has remained unread for such a long time.

I don’t enjoy romance novels on the whole, and a few reviewers have mentioned that this is like a soap opera; again, a genre which I do not I even like to watch on the television, let alone read. McCullough’s writing is not bad, but the opening was disengaging more than anything. I read the first 3% of the novel, but found it very bland, with its awkward dialogue and shadowy characters. I was unwilling to invest so much time on getting through the whole when I doubted I would enjoy it, and so this tome joins my ever-expanding Kindle graveyard.

 

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‘The Silence and the Roar’ by Nihad Sirees ***

As with many of the reviews which I am writing of late, I chose to include Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list.  The novel, which is written by an exiled Syrian author, is set in an unnamed dictatorship, which resembles that of Syria.  The lovely (as ever) Pushkin Press edition which I purchased has been translated from its original Arabic by Max Weiss.

The Independent on Sunday declares The Silence and the Roar ‘Profound and topical…  a chilling portrait of a people whose lives are dominated by fear.’  The novella’s central character is Fathi Sheen, a writer ‘who is no longer permitted to write’.  In its opening couple of chapters, he decides to pass against the mandatory participants of parades for the unnamed dictator, which are taking place all over the city on this particular Sunday.  Of these, he observes: ‘Looking down at the corner where the two streets intersect, I saw a remarkable scene.  Both streets were packed with crowds that undulated and surged as hundreds of pictures of the Leader fluttered over the heads of the masses like waves on the sea.’  Upon leaving his flat, he plans to visit first his mother, and then his girlfriend, Lama.  Such an act, and his lack of participation in the parade, marks him out as ‘an individual so a traitor.’ 9781908968296

Fathi is troubled; many issues which he faces stem from his place as almost a pariah in society, unable to work at the craft which he loves.  His days begin to lose shape, and he alters greatly due to the conditions which he is forced to live with: ‘In the bathroom I took stock of what I did yesterday.  For some time I have been suffering from unhappiness and self-loathing because I don’t actually do much of anything.  Yesterday was like the day before and like the day before that and like any day months earlier.  I don’t do anything any more.  I don’t write.  I don’t read.  I don’t even think.’

The Silence and the Roar is a diurnal novella, which takes place on one single stifling Sunday.  Sirees’ descriptions of the city and its heat are sensuous, and one can almost feel the searing of their skin as they are taken around the city by Fathi.  His narrative voice is measured and intelligent, and gives us potted histories of other characters whom he comes across as the book goes on.  On the whole however, despite some wonderfully vivid descriptions, the prose was a little too matter-of-fact for my particular taste.

The blurb states that ‘The Silence and the Roar is a personal, urgent, funny and aggrieved novel.  It asks what it means to have a conscience, or to laugh, or to endure in a time of the violence, strangeness and roar of tyranny.’  Whilst some very current, issues are explored here, the lack of distinct setting did feel a little distancing.  I respect what Sirees was trying to do here, in demonstrating that such dictatorships can occur all over the world, but I do feel as though it made the whole feel rather impersonal. The fictional aspect of it made it lose some of the horror and tension which I believe it would have had had it been directly about Syria.

Sirees also shows how little has really changed in those parts of the world which are forced to live under such conditions, originally published as it was in 2004.  The Silence and the Roar was written several years before the Syrian conflict began, but there are many echoes of the destruction and fear to come within its pages.  As a social document, it is both important and fascinating.  Regardless, The Silence and the Roar did not quite have the impact which I was expecting.

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‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi ****

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her life in Iran, was one of my choices for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  It is yet another book which I have been wanting to read for years, and whilst in some ways it was really nothing like I was expecting it to be, I still very much enjoyed reading it.  I have seen a few readers of late saying that they are tired of reading books about books; I personally adore them, and hope to never share those sentiments.  I can also safely say that I have never read a literary memoir quite like this one, which has been translated into 32 languages since its publication.

9780241246238The crux of the memoir – and something which I admit I thought would be focused upon a lot more than it was – is as follows: ‘In Iran in the late ’90s, Azar Nafisi and seven young women – her former students – gathered at her house every Thursday to discuss forbidden works of Western literature.’  The blurb promises that the personal stories of these women ‘intertwine with what they are reading’, and through their experience, Nafisi ‘offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran’.  Thus the stage is set.

Nafisi, once a literature teacher at the University of Tehran, left for America in 1997, after being expelled from her position for refusing to wear a veil.  Her account is written with a voice which feels candid and sincere, and which is sometimes acerbically funny, but which is filled with an underlying fear that permeates every daily activity.  Nafisi begins her memoir thus: ‘I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me?  For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me.’

Nafisi endeavoured to make her book club as inclusive as was possible.  Whilst one male attended from time to time, it was much safer to have a gathering solely of women, as one never knew who was watching, or keeping tabs on who was entering Nafisi’s city centre apartment.  The book club is more than simply a place of discussion; through it, Nafisi is able to offer her students a relative freedom.  ‘In selecting my students,’ she writes, ‘I did not take into consideration their ideological or religious backgrounds.  Later, I would count it as the class’s great achievement that such a mixed group, with different and at times conflicting backgrounds, personal as well as religious and social, remained so loyal to its goals and ideals.’

Throughout, Nafisi urges the reader to try and understand her difficult position, and her life as a woman in Tehran: ‘Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran.  And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.’

The memoir has been split into four parts – ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’, and ‘Austen’.  The section on The Great Gatsby looks solely at that novel, and no other works by F. Scott Fitzgerald; in the chapter about Lolita, however, many works of Nabokov’s are analysed and discussed.  In this way, it feels a little uneven.  Some of the chapters focus more upon the political situation in Iran, and those things which have been banned, whereas others are made up almost entirely of reflections upon the clandestine book club, and their discussions.  Of this book club, Nafisi writes: ‘Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it.  We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.’

The Iranian regime, and later the war, are discussed alongside the book club; both, Nafisi notes, were ‘unpredictable’, and life in Iran ‘would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown.’  As with almost every dictatorial regime, there were many restrictions enforced against women; they were reprimanded if they ran up the stairs, for instance, or if makeup was found in their handbags.  The regime was also incredibly restrictive with regard to the curriculum, and expelled many students for a variety of reasons.  Nafisi reflects that Emily Bronte was not taught ‘because she appeared to condone adultery’, and that the word ‘wine’ had to be removed from the stories of Ernest Hemingway before it could be taught.

I found Reading Lolita in Tehran to be an immersive and insightful reading experience, with such a lot of promise, which it largely reached.  A lot of my friends’ reactions have been incredibly mixed, but there is a lot within the pages of this memoir to reflect upon and admire.  The effects of living under Sharia law are discussed at length, as are the tiny revolutions which Nafisi and her students would make to regain a little of their control over themselves, at least.

The overarching message here is that reading can save you, in more ways than one.  Nafisi puts this best, writing: ‘There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.’

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