By Dina Nayeri
Riverhead Books, A Division of Penguin Random House, 2017
What does it take for a child to be taken from her native country as her mother flees persecution, to be a homeless, penniless refugee in America, and then to graduate from Princeton and Harvard, and by the age of 40 to have published two novels and won many writing awards? This is Dina Nayeri’s life story and we get glimpses of the psychological cost of her experiences in this semi-autobiographical novel.
In this riveting story the main narrator is Niloo Hamidi, who, like Nayeri, is the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian mother who fled Iran in 1987. The novel is told in the voice of Niloo and her father, Bahman, who stayed behind.
Bahman is a wonderful character. An exuberant dentist who indulges in chocolate, alcohol, and opium, he chose not to leave Iran with his wife. He didn’t want to leave his respected profession, his ancestral village in Isfahan, his house and his drug habit. The novel hinges on the four visits Bahman made to his family through 2009. They meet in the United States, Madrid, Istanbul, and Amsterdam. Over time, Bahman sees his daughter change beyond recognition, and her teenaged embarrassment over her father’s behavior hardens. He’s a mess, and she’s tried so hard not to be.
Niloo is married to Guillaume, aka Gui, a wealthy French-American (the nicest man, she tells her father, and he is). They live in Amsterdam. That’s significant, because an anti-Muslim politician is on the rise, and the city is crowded with refugees who have no visas, no jobs, and no hope. The marriage seems tenuous, despite’s Gui’s best efforts. This couple can’t understand one another. Niloo both depends on and resents Gui’s assumptions of well-being and financial security (he’s an international lawyer), while she creates boundaries between them. In every place they live she makes a “Perimeter”, a few square feet of personal space to hold her treasures. She’s succeeded in her profession as a paleontologist because she works relentlessly. Gui asks her to “waste time”, i.e. to have fun. Unable to understand this concept, Niloo befriends a community of Iranian refugees. All are trying to get asylum in The Netherlands. Gui offers professional legal help for them; she refuses. It takes her a while to realize that in pushing away her husband and bonding with the refugees she is processing her own childhood experience and learning who she really is.
In the twenty-two years this story encompasses, the Iranian situation has worsened. We see this through Bahman’s courtroom plea for his third divorce. The courtroom scenes, spread over several chapters, are a brilliant authorial device, showing Iranian values and how different they are from Western ones. This novel does not shy away from political truths. And it’s beautifully written.
It’s beyond the scope of this review to unearth the ways in which Nayeri demonstrates the complex self- hatred and conflicted identities of refugees, just as she excavates the feelings of Bahman, who stayed behind, feeling guilty he cannot effect change. Niloo’s academic work involves interpreting the teeth of prehistoric peoples, an interesting choice, given her father’s profession. All humans, Nayeri implies, lived through a full gamut of emotions in turbulent times either never recorded or now forgotten, migrating, and evolving as they did so. But their bones and their teeth tell us of the universality of humanity.