It's quite a coup for a debut novelist to be endorsed by Margaret Atwood. The Canadian writer and rock star of the literary world has called Nazinine Hozar's Aria a "Doctor Zhivago of Iran" and the comparison is not without foundation.
Epic in scope, Aria opens in Tehran in the early 1950s and ends two years after the revolution that overthrew the Shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader. Like Boris Pasternak's classic, it's a love story as well as an exploration of political violence - though Hozar can struggle to manage her multiple plot lines and the novel's expansive cast.
Born in Tehran at the onset of the revolution, Hozar moved to Canada when she was eight. There's a letter from her on the back of the proof copy of Aria. "I think novelists create their stories to understand the world around them or themselves. In my case it was both," she says. "I wrote Aria because from early childhood, life meant chaos."
While the letter is interesting, it's also a bit intrusive, a statement of intent and an outline of her credentials for writing the novel, which, like any other novel, ultimately needs to stand on its own. And in certain ways Aria does stand on its own. The title character is satisfyingly multifaceted. Her life reflects the complexity of Iran yet her experiences are specific to her. Lucky and unlucky, adventurous and resilient, she's damaged but not defined by years of neglect and abuse.
Abandoned in an alleyway as a baby, Aria is found by an army driver who takes her to live in his home. The driver is often away and leaves the childcare to his cruel and mercurial wife. Aria has one friend, Kamran - a local boy whose significance is diluted by his protracted absences from the novel. The young girl is so malnourished and mistreated that she develops a chronic eye-infection, a condition that leads to her moving in with a second surrogate mother.
Her new home is calmer and more affluent. She is sent to school, grows up and falls in love, covering her miniskirt with her veil before going to the mosque. Her new friends have divergent affiliations - some of which will prove dangerous. Her new mother insists she pay regular visits to a deeply impoverished woman whose daughters, like Aria, all have blue eyes.
From the outset, Hozar is careful to depict the heterogeneity of pre-revolutionary Tehran - the co-existence of Jews, Baha'is, Christians, Zoroastrians and Muslims, the multiplicity of ethnicities and ideologies, the tensions between moderate and extreme Islam, the various levels of misogyny and, especially, the wealth and class divisions.
While her characters are not always credible, their prejudices usually are.
"She's South-City. You can always tell when they're South-City," says a girl, who will become one of Aria's best friends. Kamran in contrast describes those from the North-City as "godless vermin, with their suits and ties and gold watches and their women who dress like sluts…"
By the end of the novel, Hozar's Tehran feels familiar. She's good at writing place - vibrant bazaars, desolate wastelands, prosperous suburbs, overcrowded slums - and visceral, memorable scenes. At one point, Kamran's dad, a bricklayer, injures his finger. He has to work, even as the infection gets worse. With steely clarity, Hozar captures the difficulties of trying to lay bricks with one hand in excruciating heat. The few torture and execution scenes are also sickeningly real - thoroughly imagined but rationed, so they don't feel gratuitous.
In a novel that is often hampered by its breadth, these tightly-focused episodes stand out. Hozar's ambition is admirable but her story might have been more impactful if she had narrowed it down.
While some of her characters are well rounded, she fails to fully inhabit others, using a lot of exposition and setting out backstories before we've had a chance to get to know and care about, to really see, the individuals in question. Overburdened by the identities and family backgrounds they've been assigned, they can struggle for life on the page.
Kamran isn't the only one who disappears for large chunks, but he is the most elusive. He's also the only character who exists beyond the events of the novel; a couple of flash forwards - jolting and anomalous - tell us what he becomes. While Aria's cast could have been seriously culled, he should have been more central, more developed.
There is a sense, while reading Aria, of being pulled in too many directions at once. The narrative is jumpy and full of gaps, which is a pity because Hozar is a courageous and talented writer, excellent at capturing emotional complexity and interrogating her themes but one of the most important parts of finishing a novel is deciding what to leave out - her editing process needed to be as unsentimental as her prose.