Dalia Sofer's debut novel grabbed me from the start and although dealt with some heavy topics (torture) it was difficult to put down and was beautifully written. Set in Iran and New York between September 1981 and 1982, the story revolves around the Amin family shortly after the Revolution. The patrarch of the family, a wealthy jeweller, is arrested and sent to prison and Sofer tells the story of how this impacts each member of the family.
Her descriptions are so illustrative and engage all of the senses, whether she's describing an old man's "wrinkled voice" or Shirin's irritation at wearing a head scarf, imagining "there are tiny elves inside ... crumpling paper against her ears all day long." The memories of coming in from swimming where "they would gather around the kitchen table smelling of soap and chlorine, and eat cherries picked that morning from the garden, just washed and dripping in the sieve." Even in prison, her sentences resonate with a beauty that is thought-provoking. " For most people, she (Farnaz) thinks, the notion of death is no more than a wallpaper - present but rarely seen. Prisoners, who have little to distract them, have no choice but to stare at this wallpaper".
Sofer tells her characters' stories with deceptive simplicity. Every member of the Amin family has significantly different experiences in the book but each attains a memorable depth and reality. She represents each of their grief and suffering as valid even as held up against the immeasurable suffering of the father in prison. Although their individual and familial crises are of the greatest urgency and seriousness, "The Septembers of Shiraz" is wonderfully light in its touch, and delicate as a book about suffering can be.
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I felt for Farnaz and Shirin the most. They were alone with no information on Isaac. I thought Farnaz did her best to deal with Isaac's arrest even though their marriage wasn't exactly what you called perfect. I was very impressed how Shirin dealt with her father being arrested. Especially when she did hide those files. It might have made a difference and with that little act, it could have saved some lives.
The story was well written and did tug on a lot of emotions while reading. Isaac's time in prison was filled with despair and you could feel his hope fading away as he counts the days of his time spent there. The book was filled with close calls, and immediate suspicion among characters as to who's playing the role of informant. As a reader, you could really feel Shirin's tension and fright over being exposed for what she's done.
I wasn't sure what to make on the separate story arc on Parviz. It was interesting as he was struggling with his own identity, yet I felt that it wasn't as interesting as the main story arc that was taking place in Iran. I felt as if that story arc was added just for the sake of adding more to the plot.
Overall, the story is beautifully written and emotional. There is an inkling of hope at the end of the novel and the reader is only left with wonder at the outcome of the characters in the book. I do recommend others to read this book. There's not many you see that takes place in Iran in this particular time in history.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
A nuanced tale of political and religious repressionSept. 3 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
This is an excellent first novel. Dalia Sofer tells the story of the Amin family, a wealthy Iranian-Jewish family caught up in the ugly repression that followed the overthrow of the shah, in a quiet, dignified style, with detail building upon detail. Jeweler Isaac Amin is snatched from his home and imprisoned by the Revolutionary Guards, for no other reason than the fact that he is affluent and Jewish. His efforts to convince his captors that he is no Israeli spy and end his Kafkaesque tortures and interrogations are described very convincingly.
Particularly notable are Sofer's efforts to portray the ideology of Amin's captors and their sympathizers and to give them a chance to speak for themselves. She does not countenance political murder, religious repression, or anti-semitism, far from it, and her sympathies are with the oppressed; but she does give her villains a voice. Why are some people the masters and some the servants? Was the Iranian upper class complicit in the repression conducted by the shah's goons before his overthrow? These are some of the questions that she asks and these help give the book considerable nuance.
I would have given this book five stars, but the ending failed to satisfy the emotional build-up of the previous 100 pages. The book seemed to peter out rather than to end in a meaningful way.
71 of 82 people found the following review helpful
"This revolution, like all others, wished to turn the citizens into one big family."July 25 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
This novel is a poignant tale of a family caught in the changing of the guard, transported into a world where their every move is suspect. On one uneventful day in 1981, after the Iranian revolution, gem trader Isaac Amin is arrested by the Revolutionary Guards in his Tehran office and transported to prison, where he is interrogated. As a Jew, Amin is immediately suspect, especially since his lucrative business takes him frequently to Israel. Now his entire world is threatened, the government suspicious that he is a spy for Israel. It doesn't help that Amin's brother has been smuggling alcohol over the border, in strict defiance of the law. Muslim fanaticism is on the rise, Isaac's family in the crosshairs, as Jews and because of their wealthy lifestyle.
While Isaac is left in a dank cell with other men, all to be systematically interrogated, he ponders the viability of ever leaving this place, let alone surviving the increasingly brutal interrogation techniques used to obtain the desired responses form the prisoners. Daily he listens to the firing squads, the moans from fellow prisoners who have been tortured and the muezzin's call to prayer. Regretting that he could not inform his wife, Farnaz, of his dire circumstances, Amin looks inward, revisiting the early days of their marriage, before they became careless of the relationship. Learning of her husband's fate, Farnaz is thrust into despair, fighting the depression that overwhelms her whenever she considers life without Isaac, navigating the days as if a sleepwalker.
Nine-year-old Shirin is told at first that her father is on an extended trip; but she is aware of her mother's anguish and seeks to alleviate Farnaz' pain by hoarding her own fears, hiding files she has stolen from the home of a friend whose father works for the Revolutionary Guards. Meanwhile, Parviz, the son attending college in New York, battles his own intense isolation in the city, waiting for money from home that never arrives. In coded phone calls, Parviz understands that his father is in jeopardy, the future uncertain. Each family member endures this painful isolation, existing in a sort of stasis, unsure how to resolve their dilemma, escaping the frightening circumstances of their days by remembering softer, kinder times, the Septembers of Shiraz.
The very fabric of their lives destroyed by the revolution, Isaac is inextricably tied to the shah's regime; there is literally no future for this family save escape. It is that painful truth that so defines the daily activities of each: Isaac's delivery into the hands of his torturers, desperate to avoid the fate of his fellow prisoners; Farnaz' gradual acceptance of a future without the luxuries she has long taken for granted, vaguely threatened but unable to take action; Shirin's theft of the dossiers that may bring swift and brutal repercussions to her doorstep; the once-loyal house servant who makes increasingly critical judgments of her employers and may be a spy; and Parviz' longing for family connections far from those he loves. Balancing the brutality of revolution with one family's fragile hopes, Sofer illustrates the chaos and fear of a world turned upside down, the Amin's driven to seek safety far from home. Luan Gaines/2007.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Lyrical Debut NovelAug. 14 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
I purchased this book after seeing positive reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. This is one of the best books I've read, with tight yet lyrical language that enabled me, someone who's never been to Iran or been in a situation akin to that the Amin family faced, to enter their world and understand their changing feelings and actions. The characters were powerfully drawn, and the reader feels empathy for the dilemmas faced by Isaac, the imprisoned father, Farnaz, his somewhat estranged wife, Shirin, the daughter, and Parviz, the son so far away. And despite the tragic events, we see growth in how the characters see themselves and relate to each other. This book richly deserves the positive reviews it has received, and I wish Ms. Sofer a long and productive career!
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
What a wonderful and moving debut novelSept. 11 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
This is an incredibly powerful debut novel from Dalia Sofer. I had high expectations for this book after reading a very positive review by Claire Messud in the New York Times. Needless to say, "The Septembers of Shiraz" lived up to its advance praise and I highly recommend it.
The story centers on a Iranian Jewish family living in post-revolutionary Iran (1981). Isaac, the father, is a gemologist with a successful business. His life and that of his family is turned upside down when he unexpectedly arrested by the Revolutionary Guard and taken to prison. There Amin is physically, mentally and emotionally tortured for a confession about being a traitor and his connection to the deposed regime of the former Shah.
Meanwhile, Isaac's family, Farnaz (wife), Shirin (9 year old daughter) and Parviz (college student living in Brookly) struggle to cope with the imprisonment of Isaac. Sofer wonderfully captures the hopes, fears and challenges each of them face through their distinctively different perspectives and situations. Sofer does a wonderful job going far beyond the expected stereotypes to paint the complex nature of human relationships -- how these relationships exist in times of "peace" and how they exist in times of turmoil. Especially powerful is Sofer's exploration of Farnaz's relationship with their housekeeper Habibeh. Her son used to work for Amin and is now part of the Revolutionary Guard.
"Septembers of Shiraz" causes us to reflect on several sweeping themes -- how complicitous is an individual who benefits from a situation without directly supporting that underlying situation? Is it possible for power not to corrupt those when they go from ruled to ruler? What is one's connection to country vs. religion?
Sofer's writing is truly captivating. She writes with a simplicity and sense of confidence that is quite unique for a first time novelist. While she creates well rounded portraits of her characters, she really excels when dealing with the inter-relationships of those characters. Also, with very few exceptions, she does not cross over into the predictable.
Overall, this is one of the most compelling and satisfying books that I have read this year. I certainly hope that more people discover this book and get to enjoy a promising new literary voice.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Tender and LuminousAug. 10 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
This new novel has a tone of rare refinement throughout. The characters speak carefully, the descriptions are painterly, and the story is poignant. When so many new novels are snarky, hard boiled and vulgar, it is a relief to read a book obviously written by a refined person and very talented novelist. Dalia Sofer gave me insight into the life Iranian Jews must have led before they turned up overnight in my community in the early 1980s. In this beautifully rendered novel, feelings spring from the page: the work-obsessed husband falsely imprisoned, the vain but loving wife, the bewildered and innocent 9 year old daughter, and the 18 year old son, an architecture student cast adrift in Hasidic Brooklyn of all places. The scenes in Brooklyn are well rendered and the Hasidim accurately pictured. I can only assume that the Iranian scenes are equally true to life. There were certain scenes that did not ring true, though. How is it possible on a teeming Hasidic street, where small children watch from front porches and elderly women peer through windows, that a young couple could feel free enough to walk together before they were engaged? Unrealistic! And a pivotal plot device turns on a Hasidic emissary having a forbidden romance while abroad. Again, unrealistic for the very reason that Lubavitch emissaries are always married couples, never single men. [I stand corrected on this point - see comment] An absorbing story, and an inspiring one.