This debut novel by Nazanine Hozar could easily be just another slice of “misery lit” if its eponymous heroine weren’t such a firecracker.
Aria’s life initially is dire indeed. As a newborn, she is abandoned and left to die by her mother under a mulberry tree in the streets of 1950s Tehran. By chance, Behrouz, a Muslim driver in the Iranian army, passes by at the critical moment. Motherless himself, he feels compelled to rescue the squalling infant.
Unfortunately for Aria, Behrouz’s home is no haven. His wife, Zahra, takes against Aria for her red hair and blue-green eyes—she must be a djinn and will bring bad luck. Whenever Behrouz is called away on duty, Zahra beats Aria, deprives her of food and locks her outside the house on its balcony.
Most individuals would crumble under such an onslaught, but not Aria. Named by Behrouz after the operatic term for song, although Aria is also an Iranian boy’s name, she refuses to be cowed by her stepmother’s brutality and remains defiant. Eventually, the neglect is so bad that Aria develops trachoma. On a trip to the doctor with Zahra in the wealthy northern suburbs, they bump into Maysi, a servant to the aristocratic Ferdowsi family for whom Zahra also used to work. Maysi introduces the pair to the lady of the house, the widowed and reserved Fereshteh, who in time adopts Aria.
Fereshteh becomes Aria’s third incompetent mother; she is unable to express her love for Aria or much emotion in general. But she cares enough to send Aria to a French school where she befriends Hamlet, an Armenian Christian boy, and Mitra, a Muslim girl whose father is a conflicted anti-royalist with communist leanings.
As the three grow up together, somewhat sheltered by their parents’ wealth, Iranian society begins to fracture. Meanwhile Behrouz and Fereshteh arrange for Aria to teach the children of the poor Shirazi family. They are Jewish, although they keep this secret because they live in a Muslim-dominated suburb of south Tehran. Unbeknown to Aria, the mother, Mehri, is her birth mother. This fact is eventually revealed and the two reach a kind of reconciliation.
This complex plot has an equally intricate backdrop. Author Hozar clearly demonstrates the faultlines which underlaid the collapse of the monarchy and the 1979 revolution. Tehran is geographically split between the rich north and the penurious south. Then there are the deep religious divides. Hamlet is a Christian, Fereshteh a lapsed Zoroastrian and Behrouz a half-hearted Muslim. Combined with fervent political allegiances—pro-Shah or anti-Shah, communist or Western sympathiser—the country is so splintered that the slightest push could topple it.
Hozar doesn’t overtly lay the blame for the revolution at any particular party’s door but her choice of protagonist makes some indications. Aria is angry and this can lead to violence. She throws hot water over Fereshteh’s (admittedly rude and snobbish) sister and flings boiling soup over Mehri. She is also happy to marry Hamlet even though her feelings for him are ambivalent while Mitra is deeply in love with him.
Nonetheless, Aria is not an unsympathetic character. Her anger stems largely from her own unfortunate circumstances and as such can be viewed as a survival instinct, a reaction to fear rather than hatred.
This important distinction between fear and hatred is encapsulated by the Shakespearean fool of the piece: a madwoman and vagrant called Yaghoot. She tells Aria at the end of the novel that “some babies come from love, some come from fear. Not hate, fear. There is no such thing as hate.”
Fear, of course, is magnified by stories. Rumors, superstition and propaganda are rife in the novel and Hozar regularly calls them out as such. Aria, for example, ticks off Hamlet for flirting with revolutionary ideas “because of some fantasy in those books you read.”
If such stories become twisted, however, the effect is far worse. When Aria takes her own baby to the hospital, injured in an attack by the Revolutionary Guard, another soldier assumes the royalists are to blame. Aria tries to put him right but it’s too late. His interpretation has formed another, headline-grabbing, story: “Go tell everyone that the Shah kills babies!”
Fear then, whipped up with disinformation, can lead to a terrible non-democratic outcome. It’s a valuable lesson for global society now where fake news can so easily be promulgated by a largely unregulated social media.