My last review was The Saffron Kitchen, a novel set in modern London and in Iran in the 1950s and ‘60s, a novel about interrupted love and political upheaval. The Stationery Shop is a similar type of novel, set in 1953 Tehran and the modern US and also featuring interrupted love and political upheaval. While The Saffron Kitchen alludes to political developments in Iran, its main focus is on the trauma these events have caused its main character and her relationship with the love interest of her youth. The Stationery Shop is more political in many ways, but the love story, while also steeped in trauma, includes healing at the end. Both stories highlight the loss of family, culture and community, the passing of the old Iran, and the difficulties of healing and growth for Iran and its people.
The Stationery Shop, like The Saffron Kitchen, opens with a dramatic event that will cause the protagonist to go back in time and recall her youth in Iran. Roya, a woman in her seventies and living with her husband Walter in Massachusetts, is visiting a nursing home and is about to be reunited with Bahman, whom she loved and was engaged to marry in 1953. Bahman and Roya were supposed to meet in the town square and go to the marriage office, but violent demonstrations prevented them from meeting and Roya never saw Bahman again. When she lays eyes on the now elderly Bahman in a Massachusetts nursing home, her question is, “Where were you?”
From here, author Kamali takes us back in time to 1953 Tehran. At this point in its history, Iran had a government that included democratic and autocratic elements. The Shah was the ruler, but he seemed to have progressive ideas, such as encouraging women to wear western dress and emphasizing education. Iran’s prime minister was Mohammed Mossadegh, a pro-democracy progressive who wanted Iran to be independent of foreign influence — be it Russian or American/English — and in control of its own valuable resources (oil). The Shah had the support of Western powers, and the communist party in Iran had support from the Russians. In a 1953 coup, which the US supported, Mossadegh was removed from office and the power of the Shah, the police and military increased.
Roya’s story, which is the focus of the novel, starts in 1953 before the coup. She is a high school girl from a progressive, pro-Mossadegh family. One of Roya’s favorite things to do is visit the local stationery/book store, owned by Mr. Fakhri. There, while reading western novels and the poetry of Rumi, Roya meets a handsome young man named Bahman who is involved in a pro-Mossadegh political group and who also loves poetry. Mr. Fakhri seems to approve this young love and facilitates the young lovers’ meetings. When the two become engaged, Roya’s family is happy, but Bahman’s mother is not. We learn that she suffers from some sort of emotional/psychological problems, and the source of those problems is revealed later in the story. Meanwhile, the streets are becoming more dangerous and Bahman has to be careful of the police, who seem to target political activists like him.
In August of 1953, when Bahman and Roya plan to elope, the coup erupts in full force and keeps the two lovers apart. Afterward, when Roya tries to find Bahman, she learns a number of distressing things through his friends and through Bahman’s letters. Roya is confused and bereft. Eventually, she and her younger sister follow their father’s advice and move to the US to attend college. Each girl will end up marrying an American and never returning to Iran, and each will have a different way of adapting to life in the US. Much like in The Saffron Kitchen, the reader will see that the emigre experience for an Iranian woman more or less without her community and family is extraordinarily difficult and often depressing. Many of Roya’s hopes are dashed both in her professional life and her private life.
Roya’s reunion with Bahman is touching, and eventually the truth of what happened in August of 1953 to keep the two lovers apart is revealed. While the past provides an ample amount of heartbreak and sadness, Roya also finds healing in the truth and in finding Bahman again, and from here, we will see that it is possible for even more goodness and love to flow forth.
Reading The Stationery Shop right after The Saffron Kitchen provides interesting contrasts. Roya finds her old love in the US, while Maryam has to go back to Iran to find her lost love. Roya’s ending in the west seems a little happier and more optimistic than Maryam’s in Iran, but Maryam’s connection to her country, its culture and history seems to be more important to her. Perhaps this is part of the immigrant experience in general: how does one hang on to one’s roots? Do you try to plant those roots elsewhere and hope to adapt, or do you hold on until you can return to native soil? There is trauma either way and it would good if we could remember that when we encounter those new to our country.