SATURDAY, MAY 26, 2012
The slim collection of seven stories is set in the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that for most us is hidden behind impenetrable borders - borders, for western readers, that are physical, cultural and psychological. Ava Homa is a native Iranian, and she writes of the world she knows. She tells of young women living ordinary lives, but lives behind veils - veils physical and actual, but veils cultural and psychological, as well.
Perhaps the most arresting feature of this collection is the oblique and spare style of its writing. The language is shorn of all adornment or flourish. We enter into the minds of characters, the hidden and secret minds, where thoughts echo in the silence. This silence is that of a censored world, where actions, even thoughts, are daring, and fugitive. And there is indeed a sense of the fugitive in this book, because the women are hiding and running from patriarchal authority figures, and their assertions of will are sudden and shocking, and often silent and invisible - that is to say, these assertions are sometimes merely thoughts in a character’s mind.
Dialogue here is often fragmentary, and whispered, so that words become a covering, or half-covering, over events in the narratives. Words in this way are both a revelation, and a veil. Words indeed are fugitive themselves in these stories, like startled birds that have escaped, by mistake, or despite themselves.
The spare style evokes, in an organic way, the bare landscape of Iran itself, or at least the landscape as this reader imagines it. An aridity to it, and a kind of suspension, which is the suspension of a people living under a totalitarian regime. The stories have rare flashes of colour - literal colour, as in a red dress or scarf, or lipstick - but colour metaphorically speaking also. The colour of a seldom glimpsed or expressed passion, for instance, or of a small, courageous act. It is the subtlety and surprise of these flashes that constitutes the art of these stories.
It is perhaps one of the aspirations of serious fiction to embody a sensibility and a place in so natural a way, with so little artifice, and it is certainly the hallmark of an artist who can do this. There are few voices we hear coming from this fortressed country, and this one, with its many echoes, and many silences, is real. For anyone interested in entering another world, a very different world, but one where people (and especially women) struggle with the same things people do everywhere, I recommend you read this unique book.