If you are into sweeping epics that portray interconnected lives against the backdrop of seismic political and social upheaval then Aria is most definitely the book for you. After finishing this I can say I am not surprised the great Margaret Atwood compared this new novel to Dr Zhivago; that’s a great assessment.
Aria is an orphan, abandoned late at night (not long after her birth) in the middle of 1950s Tehran by her impoverished mother. But though she was abandoned to die, a young man finds the baby and takes her home with him. And, so, Aria starts to survive and thrive during tumultuous times.
The corruption of the Shah is at an all-time high and the spread of a dangerous fundamentalist form of Sharia is on the rise, uprising is in the air, and sights of veils become more frequent: “Why hide the face, the teller of tales and secrets? But maybe that was it, he thought: Women’s stories and secrets were dangerous.”
This is of little interest to the young Aria whose path through life sees her rise from the slums and poverty in the south of the city to mixing it with the rich in the northern suburbs. We bear witness to Aria’s friendships and rivalries, and to the characters she meets, as she matures from a fiery young girl into a confused, often guilt-ridden woman with responsibilities and many questions unanswered; a life that crosses so many lines and touches many lives.
“I’ll name you Aria, after all the world’s pains and all the world’s loves,” he said. “It will be as if you had never been abandoned. And when you open your mouth to speak, all the world will know you.”
This book is over 440 pages long and, like all epics, is best delivered slowly, like a flower unfurling, allowing all the paths chosen by the characters we meet to be allowed to unfold as they should, for all their plans to pan out as they must. And Nazanine achieves that gentle pacing brilliantly. If you’re after a rip-roaring page-turner, this is not for you; rather this is a gentle, atmospheric wander through the roads of Tehran over a period of 25 years that ends with a dramatic finale as Khomeini’s plane touches down in Iran and all the lives Aria touched tangle in the most terrible of ways.
A brutal but necessary end to a most beautiful book.