Review by Tess Tabak
The book’s translator asked to remain anonymous for fear of safety
This haunting, evocative novel spins a finely woven tapestry out of the Iranian Revolution, djinns and mermaids, and family lore. If you’re willing to go on a meandering journey, Shokoofeh Azar takes you to unique and hauntingly strange places.
This novel truly feels like a piece woven from disparate threads to create a whole. At no point until the end did I ever have any particular idea where the book was going, but I was engaged throughout. Azar sets the tone of magical realism juxtaposed with harsh realities early on, from the very beginning, when the narrator’s mother receives enlightenment from a greengage tree: “Beeta says that Mom attained enlightenment at exactly 2:35 p.m. on August 18, 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree on a hill overlooking all fifty-three village houses, to the sound of the scrubbing of pots and pans, a ruckus that pulled the grove out of its lethargy every afternoon. At that very moment, blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, Sohrab was hanged.”
We learn the history of seemingly every character we meet, whose paths are all connected. The book’s fairytale-like structure is reminiscent of the Alchemist or Life of Pi.
However, unlike the Alchemist, this book is centered in harsh reality. It’s narrated by the central family’s daughter Bahar, who was killed by an angry mob during the Revolution and remains a 13-year-old ghost, continuing to live with and keep watch over her family. The book follows each family member’s journey to grapple over the loss of the child, and the loss of Iranian culture and history in the wake of the Revolution. Each character has different methods of coping, from wallowing in grief to intentional forgetfulness.
The language and specificity to detail throughout is spectacular. Talking about herself rejoining the family as a ghost, Bahar writes, “I became an enigmatic family rumor. Those who had come to my funeral later questioned their sanity when they saw me cooking with Mom or reading with Dad. That’s how Granddad Jamshid’s famous saying became the family mantra. He, who sometimes saw me and sometimes didn’t, said with a philosophical air, ‘In this world, nothing becomes a reason for anything.’ And so it was that family, near and far, gradually accepted me as an inexplicable, enigmatic being.”
The book starts in the 1980s and follows the family through to the present, as Beeta grows old and the parents grow very old. As a ghost, Bahar’s omniscience allows the novel to take many twists and bends. She has the ability to observe anything she wants to (including, at one point, her sister’s lovemaking). The book delves into themes of the barrier between life and death, and the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. As much as the book is about family history, it’s also about escaping unbearable realities into a land of make believe, and the role that lore plays in our real lives.
The harsh realities presented in the book are reflected in the fact that the skilled person behind the English translation chose to remain anonymous out of fear for his or her safety. The author’s acknowledgements section includes the poignant line, “I am profoundly grateful to the Australian people for accepting me into this safe and democratic country where I have the freedom to write this book, a liberty denied me in my homeland.”
Shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, this novel has received heaps of literary praise. If you’re looking for an escapist, memorable book to get you through isolation, look no further than The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is currently available from Europa Editions. This is the first American edition of the book.