Dina Nayeri's debut novel about a girl who is obsessed with the US may be flawed but it paints an impressively nuanced picture of life in post-revolution Iran, writes Fran Hawthorne
Book review: Iranian-American's first novel about a girl fleeing Tehran
A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea
Iran may be almost alone in the political sphere, but literature concerning the Islamic Republic and particularly novels that consider the country's recent past, continue to flock to market. The latest offering arrives in the shape of Dina Nayeri's A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, an original but often flat-footed first novel by a talented but unsure young Iranian-American writer.
The plot pivots around Saba and Mahtab Hafezi, the twin daughters of a wealthy couple who are the patrons and chief landowners of a fictitious village in northern Iran called Cheshmeh. It starts in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution, when the girls are 11 years old, and spans the next 11 years.
The twins have been raised to be independent, fluent in American English and familiar with pop music, and to expect successful careers. They and their mother, Bahareh, chafe at revolutionary Iran's restrictions on women and, after offering numerous bribes, the family finally manage to get visas and plane tickets for the mother and daughters to "visit" the United States.
As they drive to Tehran airport, however, things start to go wrong. Mahtab is not in the car with the rest of the family. Saba sees her at the airport with another woman and runs after her. As their father chases Saba, who is chasing Mahtab, they all miss their flight, and in the confusion, Bahareh and Mahtab are lost. Or are they on board the plane, without Saba? Or has Bahareh been arrested? And was that Mahtab at all?
Nayeri manages to keep Bahareh's fate ambiguous throughout the novel. A more self-confident writer would have known how to maintain the mystery for Mahtab, as well. Unfortunately, the author makes it clear far too quickly that Mahtab had in fact drowned several weeks beforehand. That plot weakness, in turn, dilutes the impact of one of the central constructs of the book - the stories that Saba weaves for her village friends of Mahtab's supposed life in the US, including a degree from Harvard University and a brilliant career as an investigative reporter at The New York Times. Because the reader knows these tales are a fantasy, they become almost silly, and too obviously a psychological escape mechanism.
Still, the craftsmanship of this plotting is impressive, as the tales constantly loop back to both mirror and contrast with Saba's life in Iran. For instance, Saba creates for Mahtab a failed romance with a fellow Iranian émigré at Harvard, to parallel her own unhappy, arranged marriage with a wealthy, much older widower.
As she grows from childhood to adulthood, Saba frets over multiple dilemmas: should she search for her mother, and if so, how should she begin? Should she go to university in Iran or hold out for Harvard? Should she marry her childhood friend, the handsome, guitar-playing, poor farmboy Reza? But does Reza really want to marry the third member of their band, the beautiful Ponneh, instead?
The trouble is that some of these dilemmas seem forced. The author never makes it believable why Saba - with her fluency in English and her obsession with all things American - wouldn't try to go to the US. There are also far too many explanations of the symbolism of the title. After Mahtab dies, "the girls are separated by so much earth and sea".
However, one of the village women promises Saba that there is "an Unseen Strand that holds together sisters across the world. No matter where they travel and how much earth and water come between them". In addition, "when she was a child, Saba used to think that all distances could be measured with a teaspoon" and thus, she wondered, "how many scoops of a teaspoon" from her village to the fantasy twin in America?
What saves the book is Nayeri's sharp portrayal of the complexity of life in modern Iran - a detailed and nuanced picture that is especially notable, considering that she left her birthplace when she was only 10 years old.
Certainly, the pasdars, or the virtue police, are a constant threat, to the poor villagers as well as to westernised Iranians such as the Hafezis. In one of the novel's most chilling scenes, a young female friend of Saba's and Ponneh's, Farnaz, is publicly hanged. Here, Nayeri finds power in simple words, as she describes the dead girl's "sneakered feet twisted around each other in a childish demonstration of her fright" as her body dangles from a crane.
Yet everyday life is not an unrelenting progression of death. The villagers find ways to mock the government, as ordinary people often do in even the most authoritarian countries. Despite their wealth, the Hafezis mingle somewhat with the rest of the village. This adds depth to the picture, enabling the novel to show how both the elite and the masses manage to get around many of the Islamic Republic's laws. As well, Nayeri understands the way immigrants are torn between love and hatred of their native land, and eagerness and distaste for their new one.
For most of the novel, Saba voices these dilemmas as metaphors, through the tales of how Mahtab in the US ostensibly overcomes one "Immigrant Worry" after another, including loneliness and lack of money.
Additionally, Reza's mother, Khanom Basir, a local peasant, occasionally acts as a kind of Greek chorus singing the praises of Iran in lyrical language that evokes all five senses. In the autumn, "leaves in a hundred shades of orange and red break into little pieces and mix with airborne drops of the Caspian. They create a vapour that slithers into noses and invades bodies, causing people to forget all but the sea and its fruits."
Of course, it is Khanom Basir, not Saba, who feels this gut-level connection to Iran. For her part, Saba's biggest attachment seems to be to 1970s-era US television and music. Author Nayeri never gets around to raising the obvious question: can an acquired cultural fascination really be stronger than the one you imbibe with every meal and breath?
A better novel would probably provide a deeper understanding of Iran, but A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea does at least provide a promising if uneven start for a young novelist.
Fran Hawthorne is an award- winning US-based author and journalist.