Disoriental / Negar Djavadi; translated from the French by Tina A. Kover
New York, N.Y. : Europa Editions, 2018
This is one of the best books I've read this year. And since I have been recommending it to everyone I know, I thought I'd better share my thoughts here as well.
The narrator is Kimia Sadr, who fled Iran at age 10 with her family due to her parents' political outspokenness and opposition to the Islamic regime. The family ends up in France; why, when, and how we only find out slowly, as Kimia tells the story in retrospect, flipping between present and past at will.
As the book opens, Kimia is waiting alone in a fertility clinic waiting room for the results of her recent visits. As she waits, she shares her thoughts - about her fertility doctor, about the process she's taken to get there, and then suddenly back to her great-grandfather in the province of Mazandaran, and to the birth of her grandmother, Nour. These beginnings are almost folkloric, with the harem and their superstitions around Nour's birth and the very elaborate, beautiful setting. This family background keeps getting fleshed out, all the way to the births and then marriage of Kimia's parents.
These family stories keep flashing back and forth during the first part of the book. The rapidity with which Kimia switches streams reflects the way memories work, and sounds so much like someone just telling family stories, the way they get interrupted or redirected by a comment, or how the teller just starts going off on a tangent.
In the second part of the book, it shifts a little more from the Sadr family history in Iran to their recent past in France. We learn more about Kimia herself, and what the defining moments of her nuclear family history really are. There's a sense of the narrative almost getting to a point that you're expecting then backing off - and when you protest, the narrator saying, yes, yes, I'm getting to that, and continuing on. It's a fairly long book but read so quickly for me. The family stories are rich with atmosphere and history, told in a captivating style. And Kimia herself is an opinionated, sarcastic, honest and complex storyteller.
There are themes of identity - national and personal, of being true to one's self and beliefs, of politics and its effect on daily life, and all sorts of other elements that come together in this story of a strong woman who survives a turbulent youth and ends up happy. There is a real exploration of what it means to be family, to be relations, siblings, parent & child. It was thoroughly entertaining, illuminating, and educational in all the best ways. It's a very adult book, in the sense that it never takes the easy way out, and is comfortable in its own messy complexity.
Definitely a top read of the year. Go find it!