Saturday, April 19, 2008

Review - The Blood of Flowers

What a wonderful world this book has introduced us to! Seventeenth century Iran would initially make me think of dust and deserts, shahs and swords, mullahs and mosques, and all those feature somewhere in The Blood of Flowers, but so much more is revealed.

The unnamed craftswoman who narrates the novel (I shall call her The Girl, for ease) is, she believes, cursed by a comet which puts paid to her chances of marriage and happiness. Her father dies, leaving her and her mother dependent on the goodwill of her half-uncle, whom they have never met. The novel takes place in a timespan of barely a year, and in that year The Girl loses her father and her virginity, moves from a tiny village to a bustling city, and develops her talents for carpet weaving into a business idea for carpet designs.

I loved this book because it was such a different world and the detail (which I am happy to take as authentic) was so rich. The Iran that Anita Amirrezvani paints is not dry and dusty but vivid and blooming, and incredibly textured. The bath houses and the women's community within them were especially fascinating as were the descriptions of the houses and the kitchens.

I also loved it because of The Girl. What a Dick Whittington-kind of story. In a culture and society that saw women as possessions to be bought and sold (by the trade called "marriage") The Girl manages to achieve an amazing level of independence.

How does she do that? It would be too twentieth century American to say "because of her skill at carpet weaving and design". Clearly that helped, it gave her a sense of her own worth, it gave her something to add to society and something to trade, but it wouldn't have been enough on its own. Having an uncle who worked in the Shah's weaving workshop was helpful too (and I'll think about the role of the men in the story in a minute), because she needed something to make her understand the value of what she could do.

Her parents set her on the path to independence, they cherished her and helped her develop. Perhaps their devotion made them fall short in showing her her "true" position in society, which led her to make some fairly disastrous decisions later, but they can hardly be blamed for that.

Her sexuality gave her independence. Being offered "temporary marriage" by Fereydoon was a key point in her life, more key than even she and her mother and uncle realised in fact. She gave up the chance ever to have a "proper" marriage (though her prospects for that with no dowry were pretty slim anyway). But she used that to her advantage. Forced to confront her sexuality she realises that she can use it to try to get what she wants. She also realises that she enjoys sex, which must help her not to feel totally objectified by the whole situation.

She didn't achieve independence without any assistance from men, she didn't achieve it despite the men (that again would be too cliched and Amirrezvani is far too subtle for that). Her uncle's contacts and advice are crucial, Fereydoon's interest in her and attitude towards her is important. What she sees of her friend Naheed and her relationship with her polo player informs The Girl about how some see love and marriage. Yet by remaining unhampered by a husband (or without the blessing of a husband as her aunt and mother see it) she has opportunities denied to "properly" married women. And she uses them intelligently.

The combination of events that The Girl experiences takes her from naivety to knowingness, to adulthood in fact. It could so easily have taken her to disaster and to despair. What saved her? Surely the love of her parents, especially her mother, must have helped? Her instinct to create, by knotting and desiging carpets, probably gave her another reason to look beyond the immediate problems of her life. But some inner resilience is there too, what we would call "character" now I suppose, drives her to keep going. I think that is why I liked the book so much. The Girl was someone worth knowing, someone worth reading about and I cared what happened to her. I think so often in historical novels the authors are so busy trying to cram all their research onto the page that they pay too little attention to their characters.

My only complaint is that while I found the voice completely authentic and compelling, I found the language stilted. At best it was flowery and unnecessarily peppered with Arabic terms, at worst it read like a poor translation. I believe the author was trying to convey the difference in time and culture but for me it didn't work.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Thank you for such a great review of this book...this is the second wonderful review I've read of it in the last week - looks like I should read the book!