I found this on summer vacation at an independent bookstore at Rehoboth Beach (Browseabout Books). It was a staff pick, and as I had had luck with previous staff picks from this store (Mudbound), I invested in this novel. And I am not disappointed. Published in 2006, The Saffron Kitchen is a beautiful, heartbreaking, entirely realistic story about Iran and England, mothers and daughters, the desire to be free and the pull of home and the past. Yasmin Crowther, the daughter of an English father and Iranian mother, writes what she knows and takes the reader on a journey from pre-Revolutionary Iran to modern day England and Iran.
Crowther opens her story with a tragedy on the streets of contemporary London. The incident involves her main characters: Maryam, who is 60-ish and Iranian, and her daughter Sara, 30-ish and Anglo-Iranian. The tragedy also involves Maryam’s nephew/Sara’s cousin Saeed, who is a teenager newly arrived in England after the death of his mother (Maryam’s younger sister) in Iran. The tragedy is triggered by Maryam’s shocking behavior, and Sara is horrified by what she sees. Maryam, ashamed of herself, decides it is time for her to make a trip back to her homeland to sort herself out.
Crowther splits the narration between Sara’s point of view and Maryam’s. Sara and her father are not terribly surprised that Maryam has flown off to Iran. She has done this before, and it is not unusual for her to stay for an indefinite period of time before eventually returning to England. Yet something feels different this time. Edward, Maryam’s English husband and Sara’s father, has always understood that there is a part of his wife that is secret and closed off, and that this has something to do with her past in Iran. Both Edward and Sara recall times in the past when Maryam seemed distant, untethered to their world, erratic in her behavior, and deeply sad and withdrawn. While going through their attic, Edward makes a distressing discovery that leads him to believe that Maryam might not come back.
Meanwhile, through Maryam’s recollections, we learn of her childhood in Iran. Maryam’s father had been an important military man with connections to the Shah. He had had two wives, and Maryam and her two sisters were the offspring of his first wife. Maryam’s childhood was one of privilege, but Iran was a conservative Muslim country even before the revolution. While Maryam was able to get an education and even learn some English, the expectation was that, like all young women, she would do her father’s bidding and marry a man he chose for her. This is not, however, what Maryam wanted. Her desire was to become a nurse and maybe even travel abroad. Teenaged Maryam also had strong feelings about her English tutor Ali, who also served as her father’s assistant. When political upheaval rocked Iran in the early 1960s, a series of events unfolded that gave Maryam some of what she wanted, but at a terrible cost.
Maryam returns to the village of her childhood in the hopes of reconnecting to her past and maybe rekindling lost relationships. Meanwhile, Sara, despite her anger at her mother (or perhaps because of it) flies to Iran to find Maryam and get answers about Maryam’s troubling behavior and her intentions. To her credit, Crowther does not turn this into some kind of Lifetime channel touchy-feely reunion where all the problems are sorted out and everyone lives happily ever after. She shows her readers the trauma that results from violence and repression, from being separated by force from those you love, and the alienation one would experience when trying to start over in a new place where no one knows your language or culture or history. My only criticism of this fine novel is that Saeed and another character, Dr. Ahlavi, are not better developed. They come across a bit like convenient plot devices, and given their importance in Maryam’s life, I felt like they should have been given more to do and say. Still this is a wonderful novel and an opportunity to learn about the Iran and its recent history.