Refuge is, appropriately, about the places we seek refuge: partnerships, houses, families, communities, meals, spaces. The narrative is mostly about Niloo, a young Iranian-American who emigrated to the U.S. with her mother and brother in the 80s. Niloo’s father, a dentist with a proclivity for opium, remained in Iran. Niloo is now a 30 year old living in Amsterdam and married to a French dude who by all accounts adores her, and her father is divorcing his third wife and apparently interested in rekindling some sort of relationship with Niloo–despite the fact that from the ages of 8 to 28, Niloo only saw her father four times.
This book is beautiful, but it wasn’t a page turner for me. Nayeri does a superb job of showing the constant toll of knowing that you can’t go home, and that home is something you have to create anew. Each character has found their own “refuge”, for better or worse: her father’s reliance on opium, Niloo’s “perimeter” that she establishes in each of her houses. Nayeri’s thoughtful commentary on what binds us to family, to culture, to habits, and what gives each of us a refuge, makes this book worth a read. She also mines the depths of conflicting emotions, exploring why characters choose to do and say things that to others (those who aren’t refugees) find bewildering or even irrational. Her descriptions of memory and family are also beautiful and evocative, and Niloo’s constant search for meaning and refuge are deeply felt by both reader and author. Also: this book made me want to eat ALL the Persian food.
Toward the end, the book kind of lost me, though – I struggled to understand Niloo’s choices toward the end, and felt like Gui (her French husband) really got the short end of the stick, plot-wise. I think Nayeri was trying to really hammer home the act of finding a refuge – in this case, Niloo has joined the Iranian ex pat society in Amsterdam, and is using this invigorating connection to re-connect to her Persian roots at the expense of her home life. Unfortunately, in these final chapters, Niloo comes across as quite self-absorbed and implusive and her choices at the end of the book didn’t really jive with her other struggles, or her relationship with Gui. Maybe this was on purpose – ie, Niloo felt so unmoored that she risked it all to find some kind of refuge more grounded in her home country? But it felt abrupt and sad, and not in an edifying way.
Overall, glad I read this, and would recommend it to people interested in a slower-paced, deeply felt novel about these issues.