The Blood of Flowers – Andy pays a visit to 17th century Iran

April 8, 2013

2013’s Bookshelf Challenge (or whatever Netty’s calling it) has a number of advantages. It’s allowed me to read something Netty had already read – Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems. It’s allowed me to read The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood, a writer Netty and I are bot familiar with and therefore unlikely to make the cut for the “main” challenge. And it allows me to read something like The Blood of Flowers, a book I’ve pushed for a couple of times – at least partly because it was already on my bookshelf – and which Netty has shown something roughly akin to zero interest in reading.

So now I’ve read it.

Anita Amirrezvani – Tehran born, San Francisco raised – took nine years to write The Blood of Flowers – an impressive commitment. She visited Iran three times to do research. The noughties can’t have been an easy time for an Iranian-born American woman to visit the land of her birth. I wouldn’t have thought so, at least, unless of course the image of Iran we’re fed by the mainstream media is in fact a bit skewed but oh look, the likelihood of that is, what…? Anyway, Amirrezvani’s achievement is laudable. Nine years, visits to Iran… And a terrific novel as the end product.

bloodofflowersThe Blood of Flowers opens with a nameless narrator, living in an isolated Iranian village, entering the year in which her parents will arrange her marriage. She’s 14, and excited by the prospects her future offers. But a comet offers ill omens, and sure enough her father’s death plunges her and her mother into poverty and desperation. They are forced into a life of service in the house of her father’s half-brother, where the narrator demonstrates a talent for carpet weaving that suggests a brighter future than she and her mother had foreseen. But a sudden and regrettable change of circumstances finds the 14-year-old forced into agreeing to a short-term “marriage” for financial reasons. She manages to make this work, to some extent, in her and her mother’s favour, but ultimately has to make some tough calls about what is best for her and her future.

On the off-chance someone decides they want to read this I won’t say any more. I was genuinely intrigued throughout about where it would all end, and while the conclusion is perhaps a little predictable, the circumstances around it are not. Seventeenth century Iran might not be the most obvious setting for a novel with a vibrantly independent female narrator, but it happens to work spectacularly well.  And it’s made more convincing by making the narrator no political revolutionary – she is someone in desperate circumstances who uses whatever she has at her disposal to keep herself and her mother alive. She seems to have some limited religious belief but it doesn’t dominate her life and, in fact, she seems to find it a bit of a drag. Certainly she is not impressed by the burqa-like garment she’s expected to wear in the capital – dress codes in her village were a lot more relaxed.

In fact one of the more fascinating aspects of the novel is the lack of religion – it’s there, and there are occasional elements that bring to mind the religious elements of My Name is Red. But for the most part Isfahan is presented as an essentially secular city in which class and wealth make more difference than religious observance. The rich drink wine, the rich take short-term lovers, the rich wear outrageously ostentatious garments and eat magnificently while the poor starve in their rags. And, having read My Name is Red’s depiction of illustrators in Istanbul only a few years earlier, it’s great to read about Iran’s carpet makers. They are very, very different novels – Amirrezvani doesn’t have Pamuk’s postmodernist trappings, and that arguably makes her novel superior.

While the narrator isn’t overtly political the novel certainly has political aspects, and early misgivings on my part that I was reading chick lit (albeit extremely well written) gave way son enough to the realisation that The Blood of Flowers is in fact a strongly feminist text. I doubt it will come to be the highlight of my reading year, but it will I suspect be right up there.

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