Journalist Balali’s bitter first novel about Iran, from which he is now banned, contrasts his native country before and after the Islamic revolution.
Shahed’s family sent him to the United States to study, but he has actually been working a dead end job at a gas station. He returns to Iran to see his mother on the third anniversary of his father’s death, which also happens to be the third anniversary of the revolution. The fearful, drab Iran that the Americanized Shahed visits is a shell of the lively world he remembers. There are public hangings and beatings for small infractions of the strict new religious/social code. Even religious holidays are no longer the joyous, playful occasions of his childhood. But not all Shahed’s memories of pre-revolutionary days are nostalgic. His father tyrannized his family just as the shah dominated Iran’s corrupt society. Baba was a gambling womanizer who frittered away his inheritance, beat his wife and offset his usual cruelty and neglect with brief, albeit intense displays of affection and generosity. His son has never forgiven Baba for his affair with Houri, the object of Shahed’s first adolescent longing. (Her name gives the novel its ironic title, which also refers to the heavenly virgins Islam promises to the righteous.) While recalling his younger years, Shahed also thinks about his former girlfriend in California, whose death promoted his return to Iran. His portrait of their overwrought, one-dimensional relationship self-consciously demonstrates how his father’s behavior stunted his emotional life. The coarse language Shahed uses to describe women can be off-putting, and the California scenes lack the authenticity of his childhood memories, though they’re frequently just as ugly.
Comparisons to The Kite Runner are unavoidable, but unlike that novel of exile and return, Houri offers no suggestion of potential redemption.