I love bookshops. We have none locally, but recently I have a new source for reading material: a bespoke service from a bookshop at the other end of the UK. Each month I will be receiving at my door a surprise book, wrapped divinely, bookmark included. Such a brainwave of a birthday present from my eldest. Apart from the divine Mr B’s Emporium in Bath (definitely a bookshop on my bucket list), I have discovered there are now many monthly book subscription suppliers who use various methods to select suitable titles. I loved completing Mr B’s questionnaire about what I like, what I hate – and even the types of music I love. They send a taster email informing the subscriber of the author (but not the title so it is still a surprise) in case it is something they have read. My ‘bibliotherapist’ (maybe a bit much as a title, but still, ‘Tom’ seems lovely…) certainly proved his worth with my first arrival.
Receiving surprise books is much more fun than scrolling through lists on mammoth online giants who contribute little to the world of literature by way of events for readers and authors- and who seemingly contribute even les to the taxes we all depend on internationally for public services while adding excessively to global-warming landfill. Hurrah for books stores – the lifeblood of authors and readers. They sell direct too, even in cooperatives. And subscriptions are such a good idea.
Like many, I have learned much about history and other cultures from fiction. Written well, a novel portraying an individual’s experience in a particular time or place can afford deep insight into the reality of life in wartime, survival under a harsh regime or norms in a society vastly different from our own. Most such novels can overdo (for my taste) harrowing accounts of suffering e.g Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front. Others can include too much historical detail that feels ‘parachuted in,’ e.g. Victoria Hislop’s The Sunrise (unlike her excellent The Island) about the partition of Cyprus. In the past, few emphasised the experience of women. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Women’s Fiction Prize account of a girl during the Nigerian civil war, Half A Yellow Sun (2014) was a major move towards a feminist perspective, and Anthony Doerr’s All The light We Cannot See, concerning the experience of a blind French girl in WW2, rightly won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. But in Aria by Nazanine Hozar, we have an even more powerful saga of a foundling girl child surviving against the odds in Iran from the 1950s until the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It is a good balance. This review contains no spoilers.
It is without doubt a masterful tour de force by a debut author. There is always an advantage in having lived through the times depicted in a novel – or knowing individuals who have. The Iranian-born Canadian writer left Iran with her family after the revolution, and admits some characters are based on real people. Some events are factual. But she has succeeded in deftly weaving a character’s life story into an easy-to read novel depicting a time and place of turmoil where being a woman- especially a poor woman- was not easy. Branded by their religion, mostly deprived of education (‘Why educate girls?’) and bound by familial responsibilities- or in Aria’s case lacking ’blood’ family- women were disadvantaged at every turn. The populace lived in increasing fear of SAVAK (the secret police), Aria’s changes of fortune with different carers shows her moving through several levels of society and impinge on varying religious faiths (Muslim sects, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism and Christianity). Child beatings, disease, disability, secret homosexuality come alive alongside the growth of support for Khomeni. The low regard for women is a thread throughout, but it is still somehow uplifting. Iranian society is displayed with sensitivity. The setting is richly descriptive. Once started, it is difficult to put down.
There are echoes of Jing-Jing Lee’s Shortlisted Women’s Prize for Fiction novel, How We Disappeared portraying girls demeaned as sex workers for occupying soldiers in WW2 Singapore. Though structurally different, with Lee’s story encompassed a boy in the present investigating a girl in the past, it was equally immersive. I found that title myself, but I am delighted Aria arrived at my door unsolicited
Aria by Nazanine Hozar, Penguin Fiction, ISBN 978-0-241-98766-7
(Other book subscription services include lovemyread, teatime bookshop, Willoughby, RarebirdsBC, whimsy and wonderland, Shelter Box )