Friday, 2 November 2007

The Saffron Kitchen

Hmmm. It took me far longer to read this short novel (257 pages) than it should have - a bad sign.
It's a good story - another mother and daughter drama, like William Boyd's Restless (with which this compares very unfavourably indeed).
Having been forcibly expelled from her home by her father, an Iranian woman attempts a happy sort of a life in London with, eventually, her English husband and their daughter. But, in middle age, after a crisis (which is unsatisfactorily explained), she is drawn inexorably back to her bleak, primitive village in the mountains, abandoning husband and daughter. Wanting to restore her family, and to know more about what has driven her mother to leave, the daughter follows her mother to Iran.

There's a love story, plenty of tension as we get some inclination of the mother's trying to reconcile her middle-eastern-ness with her middle-class English life, and some quite finely-drawn images of England and Iran.
But, you know, it just didn't do it for me. Which is a shame, because as an English-born Australian now living in the US, I'm a sucker for tales of displaced people.
Events that were actually milestones in the characters' lives were too quickly dealt with - in fact, there were problems with the pacing of the whole thing. It badly needed tempo changes.
While I did like the daughter, I'm confused about my attitude towards the mother, an immensely unlikable character whose failings, you feel, the author really intends you to understand and forgive.

And it irritated the bejaysus out of me that all the Iranian characters talked in language so overly lyrical and loaded with lesson, wisdom and intensity that it was almost biblical. In fact, much of the writing was awkward and uncomfortable, with oddities that jarred, like:
"Her face was full of anxiety and oily sweat."
"She returned his gaze as she always had, unblinking, each in their own stillness, as the children filed in."
"The shouts came from Bijan Ku'cheek, who clung to a hole in the wall as a stout woman tried to drag him towards the truck." (How can you cling to a hole?)
"Mashhad isn't how it was. It has no community anymore. they're even building an Underground. I think a way of life ends when people must travel in the dark, beneath the trees and the sky, to go about their day." (Groan.)
Enough said - on to better things.

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