Reach for just about any book on your shelf and you will find a couple of enthusiastic blurbs on its cover. Each line of praise will try its best to draw you towards the novel, each recommendation raising your expectations of what you are about to read. And when that endorsement comes from an author as well-known as Margaret Atwood, who compares the book to a tome as celebrated as Doctor Zhivago, you are bound to think that what you have in your hands is the next literary classic.

It is with these high expectations that we are introduced to Aria, Iranian-Canadian writer Nazanine Hozar’s debut novel and, as per Atwood, “a Doctor Zhivago of Iran.”

True to comparison, the novel attempts to deliver a sweeping drama set against the backdrop of political turmoil, as the Iranian revolution collides with a young girl’s life. But the result, ultimately, isn’t quite as riveting as you might hope.

Spanning nearly three decades, Aria opens in the early 1950s in a turbulent Tehran and ends in the early 1980s, soon after the downfall of the last Shah of Iran and the instatement of Ayatollah Khomeini as the country’s Supreme Leader. At the centre of the tale is the titular protagonist, who experiences several trials and tribulations through the various stages of her life, just as the winds of change are sweeping her country.

The book is divided into four main parts, the first three of which are named after her three maternal figures — “a mother who left her, a mother who beat her, and a mother who loved her but couldn’t say so” — while the last reflects Aria’s own journey of motherhood (although none of the sections fully focuses on the character it is named after).

As the novel begins, a newborn infant is abandoned in an alleyway, from where she is rescued by a kind army driver, Behrouz, who names her Aria, “after all the world’s pains and all the world’s loves.” Not pleased with her husband’s decision to adopt a discarded, blue-eyed, red-haired baby, Behrouz’s wife, Zahra, treats the child cruelly, raising her with abuse and neglect.

A series of events eventually lead Aria to her next surrogate mother, the affluent Fereshteh, who provides the girl with a significantly better home and upbringing, but remains emotionally distant.

The cement basin around the fountain was small, and she liked to play inside it on hot summer days. But the neighbours, who took turns washing their dishes in the basin, disapproved. And when Zahra had found out, she’d given Aria a few good beatings to set her straight. — Excerpt from the book

Behrouz and Fereshteh soon start sending the young girl to help out the impoverished family of a woman who, unbeknownst to Aria, is her birth mother, Mehri.

Her parents aren’t the only source of complications in her life. Drama follows Aria wherever she goes. Her friendships — from her childhood pal Kamran, to schoolmates Mitra and Hamlet — all lead to misfortune in one way or another. And then, of course, there is the socio-political turmoil shadowing every turn of the story, as a revolution alters the life of every character in the tale.

Hozar displays a talent for bringing a complex setting to vivid life, and her ability to create unique, fascinating characters shines throughout the novel. Many interesting individuals appear in the proceedings, such as Aria’s friend Kamran — who makes beaded bracelets for her — or Kamran’s father, Kazem, who injures and infects his hand, but continues working as a bricklayer. Or Rameen, a captain in the army who forms an entanglement with Behrouz. But these characters don’t always get the satisfying arcs they deserve. Instead, they often just disappear till the story needs them again.

It is peculiar that, despite all the melodrama constantly surrounding her, somehow Aria is not the most intriguing character in her own book. Far from it. You get the feeling that someone such as, say, Rameen, has a much more interesting story to tell, if only Hozar would let him tell it.

The novel’s scope, perhaps, is a little too ambitious. The author populates her yarn with too many characters and weaves a tapestry that doesn’t quite cohere. Pacing issues plague the narrative, as the story goes from a laconic build-up to a rushed wrap-up. Some incidents are described in more detail than seems necessary, while others don’t get the space they require. Plus, the dry, distant prose makes it hard to stay absorbed in the events or really connect with the strong, but flawed, protagonist.

It also doesn’t help that, all too often, the most important development in the book relies on contrived coincidences (especially towards the jarring end) and the characters behave in ways that don’t seem entirely credible.

Where Hozar excels, though, is in creating a fascinating portrait of a complex nation — one inhabited by Muslims and Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians — on the precipice of change, her vivid descriptions relaying the stark realities of a divided region and poor populace. You will, however, need prior knowledge of the historical developments and figures to fully understand the depth and breadth of the various settings and situations.

All in all, Aria may not be an instant classic, but it certainly has its merits. The story would have benefited from some fine-tuning and the novel could have used some editing, but it is still likely to please readers who enjoy slow-paced, character-driven family sagas and are both knowledgeable about, and intrigued by, Iran’s culture and history.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic

Aria
By Nazanine Hozar
Viking, US
ISBN: 978-0241417904
384pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 11th, 2021

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