A teenage girl and her Iranian lover, 17 years her senior, embark on a disturbing journey into the American Midwest.
Working as a candy striper in The Dalles Community Hospital in Oregon, 15-year-old Erika Etulain meets Dr. Majij Aziz, a repressed, bullied man from Iran in his early 30s. Compared to the boys in her tiresome junior high school, his maturity enchants her. Rebelling against staunch English parents, Erika rushes into the Iranian doctor’s arms, embarking with him on a road trip to Kansas, entering into sigheh, a temporary Shia marriage, so Majij can have sex with her guiltlessly. The cracks in this taboo coupling are immediate. Majij’s hope to shape Erika into the perfect Muslim wife whom he could take back to Iran is dashed by her rebellious spirit and inquisitive nature, to which he often violently reacts. Waiting for them in Topeka is Majij’s brother Hakim, whose devout fundamentalism demands much of his weak-willed sibling and his new wife. Hutson’s debut will predictably draw comparisons to Lolita, but the novel demonstrates a subtlety of tone and a skillful understanding of interpersonal relationships more reminiscent of Jane Austen than Vladimir Nabokov. The disquieting nature of their coupling is never romanticized, lending the narrative a clever, subdued quality so that otherwise banal happenings—a fart by Majij, an immature, sniping teenage comment from Erika—disturb not only the characters but the reader as well. The drawback to this approach is that the novel’s most important moments and its settings feel overly restrained, even generalized, in their portrayals, blunting emotional or violent outbursts by the characters and ironically making the novel feel its most inert when on the road. Though set before the events of 9/11, and never once uttering the word “terrorism,” the book draws heavily on real-world happenings in 1989, from the influence of the ayatollah to the first World Trade Center bombings, fostering a timely paranoia that addresses, if only superficially, both Islamophobia and fundamentalist Muslims’ fear of Western influences.
An impressive debut that, though it drags a bit in the middle, establishes a constant and ingeniously engrossing sense of discomfort.