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October 27, 2007

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

No doubt I let the physical beauty of Dalia Sofer’s novel The Septembers of Shiraz pervade my impression of the story, but also for the very first time I found myself longing to call up a book designer. (Her name is Claire Vaccaro, according to the copyright page). The same way you might want to ring an author whose work you’ve just enjoyed, I wanted to tell her, “Yes– that indigo. If a story ever had a colour… Just vivid enough, and somehow homespun, not exotic, or foreign. Just the way that Sofer paints Iran.” I would have raised the issue of the endpapers: their delicacy, subtlety, and the very poetry of their pattern– so much like Sofer’s gentle prose. I wanted to tell Claire Vaccaro that she’d read the very same book as I had, and praise her for multiplying its beauty exponentially.

Dalia Sofer’s first novel The Septembers of Shiraz takes place in Iran in the early 1980s, during those unsure and chaotic days just after the revolution and in the midst of the Iran/Iraq war. The novel begins with the sudden arrest and imprisonment of Isaac Amin, whose only crimes appear to be that he is a Jewish businessman who had lived well under the Shah. During the year that follows his arrest, Isaac and his family exist in a suspended time, the future unsure. They are forced to reevaluate their values, future plans, and their sense of themselves in a world once familiar turned completely upside-down.

Isaac lingers in prison, unsure of what each day will bring. Sadistic guards play their mind games, he is tortured and the threat of execution is omnipresent. Isaac is urged again and again to confess, but to a crime he could not answer to even if he knew what it was. His wife Farnaz has had no word from him, unsure whether Isaac is alive or dead, and her efforts to help him only demonstrate her powerlessness within the new regime. Neglected in light of her parents’ problems and as confused as anyone by this game in which all the rules seemed to have changed, daughter Shirin becomes embroiled a mess too big for her to handle. And far away across the sea their son Parviz, studying at university in New York City, confronts the hard fact of his loneliness, and the distance between him and his family now during this time of need.

The Septembers of Shiraz is Sofer’s first novel, and it is the sort of first novel that I like best. It is not masterful: the plot is flimsy in places, dialogue is rampant with exposition. But then I think mastery is a heavy burden for a young writer to bear. I much prefer promise, and Sofer’s work just explodes with it. With moments in which truth and beauty marry: “The human body is like that. It needs a constant flow of nourishment, air, and love, to survive. Unlike currency these things can’t be accumulated. At any given moment, either you have them or you don’t.” Who we are and where we belong, and where do we go when we don’t anymore? The sympathy with which family ties are drawn, and that the family ties complicated– when Isaac is taken, Farnaz and he had not truly connected in years. Such complications give the story its dimensionality. That real life goes on outside, all the while one family is in turmoil. The burdens and expectations of revolution, of history, and fallen empires.

The Septembers of Shiraz is worthy of its physical beauty, and no doubt served as that beauty’s inspiration. Dalia Sofer has created a work that is quietly extraordinary and quite deserving of a cover you can tell that by.

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