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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 38.
- Review Date: 2006-10-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Maryam is the willful daughter of an Iranian general who backed the Shah of Iran during the (U.S.-backed) 1953 coup that toppled Iran's prime minister, Mossadegh. In the midst of the turmoil, and with the threat of an arranged marriage hanging over her, Maryam is sheltered one night by her father's trusted assistant, Ali, a young man near her age—16—for whom she feels a shy attraction. And though still a virgin the next morning, their feelings for each other are clear. Maryam is sent away by her aloof father ("she is no daughter of mine"), a painful memory that, decades later, shatters her settled marriage to an understanding if pained British husband, and bewilders and angers her own daughter. A 40-year separation from Ali and a tender reunion in a remote village are just a few turns of the intense plot, full of tragic coilings and romantic passion, that make this a wonderfully intricate debut novel. Crowther, daughter of a British father and an Iranian mother, powerfully depicts Maryam's wrenching romantic and nationalistic longings, exploring the potency of heritage and the pain of exile. (Jan. 2)
Returning home to face a painful past
Perhaps most of us occasionally long for earlier, happier times, but Maryam Mazar puts her yearning into action, returning to Iran from England in a struggle "to make sense of our days" and dispel the demons of her youth. There, haunted by the words of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," she reunites with the love who introduced that poemand the English languageto her.
What's more, she gains insight into her long-dead father's behavior toward her, whether or not she can forgive it. Later, Sara, her daughter, in the aftermath of a miscarriage which Maryam had unintentionally caused, visits her in her new-old life, and learns how her mother's background still influences her life decisions.
This conflicted lament for "the order of things," which Maryam never accepted, but returns to in the end, is a delicate filigree of a story told as much by implication and atmosphere as by straightforward narration. In its take on mother-daughter relationships, The Saffron Kitchen has been compared to Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. To this reader, it seems at least as reminiscent of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, with its protagonist's return to a Middle Eastern scene of tragic private history, and some ensuing form of reconciliation.
The sights and smells of life in Iran are powerfully evoked, like Maryam's early life, and "the kitchen where she had grown up among saffron and coriander." Indeed an identifiable theme of the book is that in the very courtyard where chickens defecate, crocuses live and die and live again, and "that saffron comes from the dirt." Yet, the impersonal timelessness of time makes a huge impact on personal lives and spirits.
This is a story of two worlds and a woman who does not totally fit into either one. In this evocative first novel, Yasmin Crowther makes a beautifully expressed case for first homes and old loves. But, for the reader, in the end many questions are left to wander the mind, both unasked and unanswered.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.