"Children of the Jacaranda Tree" (Atria Books), by Sahar Delijani
Let's get one thing out of the way: I admire Sahar Delijani for taking on post-revolutionary Iran as the subject of her debut novel, "Children of the Jacaranda Tree." It is a tough topic to tackle, especially for a novelist trying, as Delijani does, to explore the emotions involved in what is simply not a very black-and-white subject.
It's even more ambitious to explore the past 30-something years using multiple characters, multiple generations and multiple uprisings. Delijani didn't make it easy on herself by taking on such a challenge.
Unfortunately, she also didn't make it easy on her readers. The result is a novel whose pieces never really gel, and where what appear to be intentional attempts to keep things vague for purposes of ambience can leave a reader flustered and confused.
Each chapter of "Jacaranda" tells the tale of a character or multiple characters somehow affected by one of the most traumatic episodes that followed the Iranian Revolution: the 1988 mass execution of thousands of political prisoners. This purge came as Islamist forces continued to consolidate their grip on the country following the ouster of the shah, crushing a range of other activists — communists, secularists and more — who had also fought the monarchy.
Delijani, who herself was born in an Iranian prison, bases some of the story on that of her family. Her uncle was executed and her parents had been imprisoned but managed to avoid the purge. She goes well beyond her parents' generation, however, and into that of her own, even splicing in stories toward the end of the book about the young Iranians who took to the streets after their country's disputed presidential election in 2009, in what became known as the Green Movement.
I'm quite familiar with Iranian history, but even I frequently found the novel hard to follow. There are far too many characters, and their relationships to one another are not always clearly established. The oppressor — the Islamist government of Iran — isn't always clearly defined. Too often I kept asking myself, "OK, so who exactly is after this person and why?" If the book is designed to educate a Western audience, it doesn't do a very good job. Plenty of readers may find themselves having to turn to online or other sources for help on understanding the basic background of what's going on. And that's not fair to those readers.
I understand that Delijani was trying to explore the emotions of the people scarred by the killings, repression and systemic failures in post-revolutionary Iran. And she has a gift in that realm. The way she describes the tensions between young people in love is extraordinary, actually. But I fear she fell into a trap that many new novelists fall into, which is focusing too much on style and not enough on substance.