Online Book Club: THE SEPTEMBERS OF SIHRAZ by Dalia Sofer

Sofer This month’s online book club selection was The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer. The Septembers of Shiraz tells the story of the Amins, a Jewish-Iranian family living in Tehran in the early 80s, shortly after the fall of the shah. Isaac, the father, built a successful jewelry business under the former regime, and the family enjoyed a very comfortable life in Tehran, complete with fancy cars, summer homes, travel abroad, a house with a pool and hired help. When the book begins, Isaac is living with his wife, Farnaz, and their 10 year-old daughter Shirin. Their son, Parviz, has moved to New York to attend college.

The book opens in a state of uncertainty and tension, which doesn’t break throughout the whole novel. Shortly into the book, Isaac is arrested by revolutionaries and thrown into prison, with the vague charge of being a Zionist. The story rotates through all four family members’ points of view, each chapter offering a different perspective than the one before.

Isaac’s chapters are the hardest to read, as they detail his brutal treatment at the hands of the prison guards and his decreasing hopefulness of leaving the awful place alive. Parviz’s chapters are geographically the most remote, but in many ways they parallel those of his father, as they describe the isolation he feels living in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, impoverished and without news of his father other than that he has been taken away. Farnaz’s chapters show her trying to go on usual while not knowing whether her husband will return, living in constant fear of the revolutionaries coming to their house and seizing Isaac’s papers, his property, or worse, her and Shirin. Finally, Shirin’s chapters depict a lonely girl who doesn’t really understand what’s happening, but who steals files of accused traitors (including that of her own uncle) from the basement of a friend whose father is one of the revolutionaries, which ultimately costs her her only friendship.

The Septembers of Shiraz is a well-written and powerful book, albeit a difficult one to read. I could almost feel my heart rate rising whenever I picked it up, and, as my friend Sarah noted, it’s not an easy book to read before bed. There are some very painful scenes (though not gratuitous) about Isaac’s experience in prison, including some episodes of torture. Yet I think that this is an important book, especially in today’s world where we regularly learn of torture and cruel imprisonment at the hands of both our enemies and our own military. It’s a world that easy not to think about until you’ve read about it, and then it’s hard not to think about.

Another theme in The Septembers of Shiraz is that of our relationship with tangible, creature comforts. Isaac ends up abandoning most of his fortune – his cash, his homes, even his prized jewels. As these are gradually stripped from him, we watch him ultimately decide that life and relationships are what matters, a realization that comes to the other characters in the book at different times and with varying degrees of success. Sofer’s exploration of how we define ourselves and our worth – whether through what we have, or what we do, or simply who we love – is a theme that I found thought-provoking.

My one disappointment with the book is its dispassionate, even tone, which Sofer adopted throughout the story. There was little passion, especially between the characters. Parviz, for example, accepts the news of his father’s fate with barely any emotion, while Farnaz’s sadness over Isaac’s disappearance is almost businesslike. The most passionate characters – the Amin’s housekeeper and Parviz’s Hasidic landlord – serve as heightened contrasts to the Amin’s cold, matter-of-fact exteriors. Perhaps because the story is autobiographical, Sofer needed to maintain some distance from her characters to keep her sanity. I’d be curious to hear how she addresses this comment.

All in all, this was a very worthwhile read and I am happy to have read it. Now let’s hear from the rest of you.