The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
From the first page of The Septembers of Shiraz, you know it’s not going to be a fun or easy read. In September,1981 in the midst of his work day, Isaac Amin, a Jew living in Tehran, is apprehended at gunpoint by two members of the Revolutionary Guards. They transport him for interrogation and imprisonment. His crime? Being a Jew and benefiting from the reign of the Shah; officially he is accused of being an Israeli spy.
Isaac is a gem trader and jewelry designer in Tehran and has led a very comfortable lifestyle, amassing a fortune under the rule of the Shah. His wife Farnaz and ten year old daughter Shirin live with him in a sprawling house with servants and a gardener. His son, Parviz, attends architectural school in Brooklyn. The novel’s chapters alternate between these four characters from a third person POV.
After the fall of the Shah, they realize that their lifestyle, if not their lives, are in jeopardy. The revolution post-Shah has changed life in Iran drastically. No longer is music or dancing allowed, any person of wealth is suspect, and anyone not loyal to Islam is considered immoral and subject to harsh punishment. A list of executions is frequently posted in the newspaper, and the Amins sometimes read of friends being killed. It is difficult to know whom to trust and conversations and letters are often peppered with code words and phrases.
“The Septembers” refers to Isaac’s idyllic time spent in Shiraz in his youth and young adulthood. It is in stark contrast to the September in which he begins his imprisonment. Some of the prison scenes reminded me of The Lizard Cage, a remarkable book about a Burmese prisoner (2007 New Writers winner). Conditions are unimaginable, torture is frequent, survival is tenuous.
As difficult as the subject matter is, I found this a very readable book. The author, Dalia Sofer, was ten when she and her family fled Iran, so I assume that Shirin is a partially autobiographical character. Sofer’s prose is beautiful – for example, when Farnaz picks up a forgotten pair of Isaac’s shoes from a shoemaker while he is in prison, “…she takes them, like a widow leaving a morgue. She walks home with the bag looped around her wrist, the shoes banging against her thigh, as if kicking her for interrupting their repose.” There are many such lovely turns of phrase in this astounding debut novel.
Highly recommended. (4.5/5)