Reading an advance copy of The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan, the first impression of the tale is lush and life-affirming with the constant symbolism of the gardens of the world, and the gardens of the women’s bodies. Juxtaposed against each other, the symbolism is not difficult. The Jewish community of Tehran in the early 20th century was circumcribed, for women, by fertility. Little else mattered to them and to their future. Why go to school when one does not need to read to be able to change a diaper? They spend their lives trapped inside the walls of their homes and estates, in the gardens of them where the pomegranates grow and must be harvested, and the food must be stored up and processed and all the domestic chores fill the hours with activity. Two brothers marry. The elder’s wife seems barren. The younger’s wife bears him a son. The elder, infatuated with a vision of another woman from before he married, decides to take her on as a second wife to bear him a son. It is a disastrous mistake that marks the family forever. A novel of women, Rebekah, the shrewd and cruel first wife of the elder brother, is the main character. Her childlessness is, at first, blamed on the spectral hand of a Djinn. Her sister-in-law, the wife of the younger brother, who bears a son and a daughter is kind and sweet and doomed. The woman from the garden, who comes divorced and forever separated from her first child by Jewish law, at first would seem to be the enemy of Rebekah, but she is a sad, lonely woman, with no place in society and she is not even allowed to be remembered by her name in the future genealogies of the family. Of course, behind the scenes, the brothers’ mother is a force of nature, and the power holding all she sees in place. The servants, as well, all women speak from the edges of the tale, occasionally sharing their circumscribed histories. It is a man’s world, indeed. Women just suffer and seek God in the eyes of their sons and daughters.
The good places of this book are very good. The verdant gardens are lovingly described and form the symbolic backdrop upon which the actions of the woman and characters are set. The many details of the Jewish community in Tehran are fascinating. Truly, the culture existed under siege, yet managed to trudge on to prosperity against the will of the Muslim community, who were prone to fits of violence and punishing taxation upon their despised underclasses. In one instance, the character, Ibraham, was beaten near to death for bumping into a poor, Muslim tailor, in a rainstorm, where the “filth” of the Jew smeared onto the pure Muslim. Ibraham was an open minded and kind man, as likely to study Hafiz and Rumi as he was the Torah. He also kills his wife because of his kindness, but I shall leave that for readers of the text to discover. It is worthwhile to read the text if only to explore this fascinating world where women and men have separate door knockers and life is spent in a walled garden like a pampered prisoner queen. in the description of the time and culture and season, this book is a glittering gem of detail and insight. It makes one long for what the novel could have been without some of the painful drawbacks to the skill with which it is rendered into the form of a novel.
The modern day narrative of a bumbling daughter of Ibrahim, niece to Rebekah, acts as a framing device to recount the family story with the distance of time. It is a clumsy device, with no real narrative purpose but to provide extra description of garden spaces that become so clumsy and broad in their obvious symbolism, that one hoped there would be some purpose to the modern day events. Alas, with no plot of her own, a bumbling old woman acts as an excuse for the writer to engage in all sorts of confusing point of view breaks, bumbling about from one character to another, creating more confusion than enjoyment. It is hard to follow who is in control of the narrative. It does not seem like anyone is, including the author. As the story unfolds, much of the foreshadowing and plot is handled through dream sequences that are so clumsily written, it is a wonder a sharp editorial eye did not excise them. For instance, the one fertile wife of the two brothers is once seen being ripped in half by the two brothers of the story, a clear and obvious reference to Solomon’s divided infant, and clearly what happens when Ibrahim makes a decision out of kindness to his brother that is so impossibly cruel to his wife, who must simply accept what is decided that she dies from grief.
Without the tedious dreams, without the bumbling framing device that amounts to so little, what is left is still interesting, but it makes one long for a more careful book, less reliant on narrative tricks and the beautiful writing that attempts to make the tricks succeed, the characters do speak through with sympathy and desperation. Nothing is perfect, of course, and I must accept the book before me, not the slightly smaller book that I wished it could be. It is still fascinating for its cultural portrayal and lush language. Rendered down to stars, I give three of five.