Why I Chose This Book
Book club book! It’s the one I voted for, actually, because I already had a copy of Dead Until Dark lying around the house that I know I’ll get to one day, and I didn’t really want to read The Distant Land of My Father because, well, I thought it was a memoir and was not in a memoir mood. I’ve since become more intrigued by it, but what can you do now?
Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book
I started this review about a week ago, when I’d finished the book, but got distracted. Now I find out my book club friend hasn’t even gotten a hold of the book yet, and I’m loaning it to her tomorrow, and I figured I’d better write out my notes while I still had it around for reference, in case I needed to look up names and things. So much easier to open a book than dig info out of the Internet.
Nutshell Review of the Book
The story was pretty good to OK, but shines as an artifact. It was written in the 1930s as a historical novel set in the 19teens (right before WWI), in a specific geographic location: the intersection of Asia and Europe, in a town unsure of which continent was its primary influence. I was impressed with the diversity of locations and lifestyles presented in the book, and the style of the novel was easy to follow. The main character, Ali (a Muslim boy), was quite well fleshed-out, although everyone else was less so. It is called a “great romance” by the book cover blurbs, but, eh. Ali certainly has great love for Nino (a Christian girl), but we only get glimpses of her from his point of view. There is enough to suggest that she is a fully fledged person, but the reader doesn’t really experience her as a fully fledged character. She speaks up for herself often enough, but always to Ali, so what you get of her comes through his filter. You kind of have to trust him for why he’s so in love with her (besides the fact that he’s a young, rich son in love with his pretty, rich high school sweetheart whose parents consider them old enough to marry, which is the perfect set up for instant romance). And he does a lot of courageous things to be with her, so he’s really, really sincere, and he does think a lot about how she’ll react to plans he makes for them, which lets you know she speaks up for herself, but she’s not really in the book with us.
Long story short, your enjoyment of the novel will likely depend on your interest in this guy’s point of view, and your interest in the historical portrayal of a Eurasia populated by Muslims and Christians on the verge of war. Personally, I think the historical part is what the book has going for it. I did get pretty tired of Ali by the end.
Detailed Review of the Book (And Here There Be Spoilers)
The most shocking thing about this book was its portrayal of Islam the Religion. Islam the Culture was presented as diverse and specific to the groups of people who populated the novel, from remote mountain towns to wealthy urban harems to wealthy urban not-harems. There is no one “right” way of living an Islamic life, and the characters frequently discuss the benefits of the different environments they inhabit. But Islam the Religion does not come off well. There is a character who discusses with Ali at great length how women don’t have souls, so it doesn’t matter who he marries so long as his sons are raised in Islam. There is a serious discussion of an honor killing, among educated urbanites, regarding the fate of a woman who was sent to the opera with her fiance’s companion by her fiance, who was later that evening accused of running off with the companion (while the companion was accused of kidnapping her). The woman herself acknowledges that she deserves to die. I realize that these (fictional) events take place more than a century ago, when thoughts about women and men were different than they are in Westernized nations today, but honor killings are pretty extreme. Claiming women have no souls is pretty extreme. It’s one thing to take Nino in context when she says all she wants to do is keep house for her husband and have his babies, but to see honor killings presented as reasonable solutions among reasonable people who are basically living in a Europeans city is disturbing. Christian (and other religions, but Nino is Christian) religious rhetoric about how women are men’s “helpmeets” and obeying the head of the household and all that never dismisses the idea that women have souls. Reading about beliefs like this held by the characters of the book–for all that Ali questions them he doesn’t actually reject them–definitely undermines my interest in the main character. That said…
What I know about novels is that the author’s perspective is not reliably a realistic perspective. JUST BECAUSE Kurban Said paints Islam as claiming that women have no souls does not make it a tenet of Islam. Just because Ali and his buddies entertain the thought of an honor killing doesn’t mean that they are acting in accordance with the beliefs of their families and communities. I’m not sure if the author* is ill-informed, has an agenda, or what. I am not particularly informed about what Islam means today, much less 100 years ago, and I am not–sadly, I guess–that interested in doing a lot of research to find out the social customs of honor killing among urban upper-middle class Eurasians during the Edwardian age, but at least I know I am not accepting it as fact. Nonetheless, it colors my perspective on Ali, as a person and as a partner for Nino, and impaired my ability to root for a happy ending for them.
*Kurban Said is a pseudonym. There is a debate about who actually wrote the book, which is answered relatively definitively at the end of my edition (Nussimbaum) but which seems to be much more open on the Wikipedia page. You know Wikipedia and can make your own decisions about its reliability here. The book’s version seems “truthier,” but I’m not going to do any extra research on this, either.
I also found interesting how the novel skipped around the edges of the Armenian genocide. There’s an Armenian character in the book who is very concerned about how his friends might protect him from Turks, and there is reference to people who have died, but there’s nothing in there that outright says “massacre” or “genocide” to people who don’t know about it already. I wonder why that is. Is it because the author didn’t want to sidetrack the narrative? Is it because the author didn’t care? (But then why include an Armenian?) Is it because not much was known about the genocide in the 1930s, when the book was written? Is it because so much was known about the genocide in the 1930s that the author didn’t need to make more than allusions to it for the audience to see the import? Again, it’s interesting and my knowledge is incomplete, and it’s a free term paper topic to anyone who needs one. It just struck me as odd–a 21st century reader–to have an Armenian in a book who is afraid of being killed for being an Armenian, and not expand on it.
Finally… and this is a side note… I thought the novel presented very succinctly how the oppressions of religion are so tied up with economic and political power. To see how within a single religion men and women interacted with each other in a tiny mountain town in relative poverty contrasted to how women are corralled and controlled in the harems of the wealthy, sophisticated, technological Tehran is amazing. (Hint: A good case could be made that the impoverished women have better lives, even if they see doctors less often.) But it’s this kind of geo/political/social complexity within the books that kept me turning the pages, and it’s why I do recommend the book to others.
What’s On Deck
Little Bee by Chris Cleave (There’s a waitlist and I won’t be able to renew, so I’ll hop to it tomorrow.)
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (TABLED–there are library books with due dates to get to)
Woman on the Edge of Time by (Marge?) Piercy–FINISHED AND AWAITS REVIEW
House on the Strand by Daphne DuMaurier
Mary Anne by Daphne DuMaurier
Something by Anna Shreve about a man obsessed with his wife.