By Tess Tabak
Disoriental, a new novel by Négar Djavadi, tells the epic story of a family, the Sadrs, across a century of true Iranian history. Kimia, the youngest daughter of Darius and Sara Sadr, is the self-appointed keeper of family lore. She tells her own story through the lens of her extended family’s history, weaving the tales in and out of each other like a modern day Scherzerade. The family currently lives in France and Disoriental’s message is particularly poignant, and relevant, in today’s political climate, when refugees are not freely welcome in many Western countries.
The novel opens slowly, on Kimia attempting to receive fertility treatment, in a room filled with couples desperate for a child. She is the only one who came to the appointment alone, without a partner. Once you get started this is a hard book to put down. While she waits for the doctor, Kimia braids her present story in and out of her family’s history, set against the backdrop of Iran’s tumultuous political history. Anecdotes fluidly move from one into the other, and the tale jumps back and forth between spans of 20 to 50 years at a time (there’s a helpful key in the back of the book if you lose track of the characters).
With beautiful prose by Djavadi (and skillful translation from the original French by Tina Kover), and Kimia’s biting wit, readers will be entranced by the Sadr family lore. If you’re not familiar with Iran’s history do not be discouraged from reading this book. Djavadi is consciously writing for an international audience- she footnotes some historical references that foreign readers most likely won’t be familiar with using wry comments from Kimia like “but surely you remember that.” Kimia paints a deeply detailed, heartfelt picture of her family lore. The book feels very much like a window into an intimate family gathering.
Disoriental takes its title from that unraveling feeling Kimia describes while attempting to assimilate with French culture. Her family fled to France from Iran when she was 10, and she’s had a hard time fitting in. “Because to really integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from you own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make an ‘effort at integration’ would dare look them in the face and ask them to start by making the necessary “effort at disintegration.” The book is an attempt to preserve her family’s history in the face of exile, as she prepares to start her own family.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.