Parisa Reza’s novel The Gardens of Consolation is one of the most beautifully written of the year to date.  The Iranian Reza examines the life of a young couple, newly betrothed (the woman is all of 12, the man many years her senior), living in an obscure town in the far Western part of Iran, nearly in medieval circumstances.  The village in which these two are born has its set rituals that haven’t changed in centuries; the main product that is made in their small town is rosewater.  The descriptions of how rosewater is made are magnificent, so that we readers almost smell the rose petals from which rosewater is made.  It’s a static society/culture in which these two live.   The husband leaves the small village to seek his fortune near Tehran, and takes many years to return for his bride, who is eager to leave the village with him to start a new life.  During the period when he’s away, we get a very good sense of the young bride’s personality, rather vivacious, talkative, determined, and probably very intelligent, curious about the outside world.

When her husband, now somewhat established with his flocks of animals in a village near Tehran, comes to get her, the descriptions of the journey (by mule) from the village of origin, when the wife sees the vast plains of Iran for the first time, are utterly magnificent, some of the most romantically moving writing of 2017.  Reza’s ability to see the land with the fresh eyes of a new young bride is astonishing; the bride’s tendency to attribute natural phenomena to spirits and the like, is presented beautifully; the dynamics of the marriage are established early, during this journey: she talks a lot, he listens and reassures.  The backdrop for their journey is the timelessness of the country itself, and their complete lack of knowledge of the outside world, the world of the capital, politics, changes brewing. 

After many difficulties in conceiving and keeping a child (and the judgements of female neighbors upon the woman who’s having trouble conceiving), the couple moves to a different village (manifesting a great sensitivity on the part of the husband), and eventually they conceive one son, who’s curious, like both parents, brilliant, adaptable.  The author begins to show the completely different lives that parents and son will live.  Neither parent has any schooling, but they want their son to be educated, at least through the 6th grade.  And the son will get an education, including college in Tehran, and he and his friends will become politically active for a candidate for the Presidency, while his parents believe that none of the politics of Tehran will have any impact on their own lives, while they accrue land, animals, and , their dream, build a house with magnificent gardens (those must be the gardens of consolation of the title).  Change comes raining down upon the son and his friends, so that by the time the man we know as The Shah of Iran takes over the country, demanding Westernization in all sorts of ways (including ridding women of any necessary coverings–the mother is actually relieved to be done with those head scarves and the like, but it’s one of the only changes she recognizes in her life/way of life).  The dichotomy between the increasingly “modern” life of their son and his friends, versus the basically static life the parents live, becomes the key dialectic of this novel. 

Everything the son will acquire and achieve is based upon the “new” Iran, and everything he prepares for goes down in ashes with the political revolutions of modern Iran. His parents will continue to live the life they sought and achieved, and the “new” Iran affects them not at all.  They remain illiterate, but eventually become landowners, keeping their crops and animals with increasing wealth accumulated.   We don’t know where the author herself may stand on these changes, but we’re not entirely prepared for the fact that , in many ways, the “old” ways win out in this novel.  By the time the parents have achieved their goals, we are truly rooting for them, and although we are also in the son’s corner, the author’s own ambivalence between the “new” and “old” Iran is part of the point of the book. But during the course of the novel, Parisa Reza’s writing remains magnificent; the smell of jasmine, if you will, pervades the book, and the author reminds us that the land itself survives, and may in the end be the central actor in the novel.  The Gardens of Consolation is a beautiful, brilliant book, full of surprises, and reminds us of the pervasiveness of village ways as opposed to the vicissitudes of contemporary political trends, which seem to come and go, come and go.

–Daniel Brown

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