Reminiscing in her Los Angeles garden, an elderly woman pieces together the tragedy of her ancestors’ Iranian Jewish household, in which the actions of two brothers “who would sacrifice anything for one another” result in sorrow for three wives.
Foroutan’s lyrical debut offers a mosaic of stories evoking life within a wealthy Jewish home in Kermanshah, Iran, in earlier times. Although Asher Malacouti has spun the money inherited from his father into a fortune, his success has only made his desperation for a son and heir all the more urgent. This is a world of deeply traditional roles, where a wife’s security depends on her fertility, so as time passes and Asher’s young wife, Rakhel, fails to conceive, tensions rise. Rakhel is forced to accept Asher’s decision to take a second wife, Kokab, but it drives her into a terrible suicidal episode. Then Kokab—divorced by her first husband and forcibly separated from her daughter—fails to conceive, too. Through the ghostly voices of this unhappy home, with brothers Asher and Ibrahim at its center and the womenfolk circling them like satellites, the disastrous history is slowly reassembled. The repository of these stories is Mahboubeh Malacouti, Ibrahim’s daughter, who left Iran in 1977 but who has memories of Rakhel, a harsh, vindictive woman, although none at all of her own mother. All Mahboubeh knows is what Ibrahim told her, that her mother “died from the complications of womanhood.” Deftly structured, this novel traces those complications to their core, exposing the pain, oppressive forces, and difficult allegiances within and without the estate, while lending grace through the delicacy of its observation.
There’s little joy to be found in this tale of a doomed family, flavored with myth and fairy tale, yet the poetic narration overlays the suffering with surprising beauty.