Caspi­an Rain

  • Review
By – December 9, 2011

Caspi­an Rain jolts to life with an envi­able momen­tum, which is rather remark­able giv­en that so much of Gina B. Nahai’s nov­el involves wait­ing. Also remark­able: There’s so much empa­thy in a book laced with cru­el­ty and so many inven­tive flights of fan­cy in a nov­el deep in traps made of false hope. 

Our nar­ra­tor is Yaas, an Iran­ian girl born in the seem­ing­ly sta­ble years before the rev­o­lu­tion. She is the daugh­ter of Omid and Bahar — Omid is a well-to-do Jew who has escaped the ghet­to and Bahar is the daugh­ter of a trou­bled fam­i­ly that nev­er can escape, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a nation where women are basi­cal­ly with­out rights. Mar­ry­ing above her class puts Bahar in an unten­able sit­u­a­tion for which there is no easy res­o­lu­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly once Omid takes an inter­na­tion­al lover named Niyaz who knows no bound­aries. Yaas’ child­hood gets more com­pli­cat­ed with almost every pass­ing Sabbath. 

Caspi­an Rain is a mere 290 pages, but there’s noth­ing quick and sim­ple about it, nor is there much com­fort to be had in its pages. What the nov­el does offer is trou­bling­ly beau­ti­ful por­traits of an array of char­ac­ters as fam­i­lies dis­in­te­grate and dreams go awry. This is a smart­ly exe­cut­ed sto­ry of long­ing and empti­ness and of both cacoph­o­ny and silence. Nahai’s nov­el will be too unspar­ing for some, but it does fit the mood that is some­times referred to as the 3 a.m. of the soul.”

A Mem­o­ry of Iran

Caspi­an Rain author Gina Nahai mus­es about the deep source of her nov­els: her own sun­ny mem­o­ries, and the dark­er ones of her shad­ow’ self.

Do you write from mem­o­ry? Some­one always asks, and I become tongue-tied and uncer­tain, scram­bling for the words, the ways to make believ­able what I know will sound bizarre — a too-com­pli­cat­ed response where all that is required is a sim­ple Yes. Or No. Or Some­times; the rest is research

I lived in Iran for only thir­teen years. I remem­ber very lit­tle — a hand­ful of places, a cou­ple of dozen friends and rel­a­tives. Yet I’ve spent my entire career writ­ing about the coun­try and its peo­ple, and I’ve writ­ten it all — this is the part that’s dif­fi­cult to explain — from mem­o­ry. 

There were always two of us, I want to say when some­one asks me where my nov­els come from—back then, in Iran, in that place where all the sto­ries began, where all the men and women, the ghosts and leg­ends and bit­ter, half-invent­ed truths that made up our dai­ly real­i­ty lived and died in grand, spec­tac­u­lar, for­ev­er trag­ic ways. There was I, the child who engaged and enjoyed, who accept­ed, as the inno­cent would, with­out ques­tion­ing, with­out doubt or judg­ment, the strangerthan- fic­tion­al world she was born into, who passed through those years unscathed and unscarred, bear­ing few mem­o­ries and even few­er attach­ments, cross­ing eas­i­ly, effort­less­ly, over to a life in the West. And then there was that oth­er me, that silent, invis­i­ble, for­ev­er-present part of me that watched and remem­bered. That oth­er one, the one who’s silent except when I write, saw the things I could not bear to see, felt the emo­tions with a force that I, as a child, could not with­stand. It is she who remem­bers and who tells, who tries to bring togeth­er the scat­tered pieces of time, the shat­tered bits of lives, glue them into a can­vas and, in the retelling, make them whole. 

I remem­ber our house, its grand, almost the­atri­cal beau­ty — high brick walls and hand-paint­ed, gold-leafed ceil­ings, fresh­wa­ter pools with stat­ues of mer­maids and dol­phins ris­ing in the shade of hun­dred-yearold trees — in the midst of a city that had grown too fast, become too unwieldy too soon. I remem­ber my grand­par­ents — the men angry and dis­ap­point­ed, the women qui­et­ly resigned. My par­ents — young, beau­ti­ful, deter­mined to break out of the life of tra­di­tion and obe­di­ence they had been born into. My two sis­ters — green-eyed, gold­en­haired, qui­et as angels and equal­ly help­less. 

She remem­bers the rest — the friends and strangers, neigh­bors and long-lost cousins, des­per­ate sales­men on one last call for the day, wiry old tax col­lec­tors bear­ing suit­cas­es that were emp­ty when they arrived, filled with cash and oth­er valu­ables before they left — the tales they told or that were told about them, the grudges they bore, the tri­umphs they boast­ed of. 

I remem­ber what was—our lit­tle ele­men­tary school with the green paint­ed gates and the play areas that were reserved for boys, the prin­ci­pal who walked around the yard wear­ing stilet­tos and car­ry­ing a horse whip, two feet of snow in the win­ter, swel­ter­ing side­walks in sum­mer. 

She remem­bers what wasn’t — the kind­ness we didn’t see from our teach­ers, tol­er­ance from our elders, gen­tle­ness from a land­scape, a cli­mate that, although breath­tak­ing­ly beau­ti­ful, showed no mer­cy to the weak. 

I remem­ber what I wished for — good grades; my par­ents’ approval; the white pleat­ed skirts and gleam­ing sharp col­or pen­cils and scent­ed erasers that my friends brought back from Amer­i­ca every sum­mer. 

She remem­bers what I feared — to fail in school and there­fore be barred from going to uni­ver­si­ty; to fail my par­ents and there­fore become, like all those oth­er girls whose sto­ries I heard as a child and that I would write about in my nov­els, a source of shame and infamy to my own chil­dren and theirs; to fail among my peers and there­fore become, like the run­away aunts my moth­er told me about who, try as they might, could not con­form to the mores of the day and had to leave or be dri­ven out of their home­town, nev­er to be allowed to return. 

do write from mem­o­ry — yes — I want to say to those who ask, but my mem­o­ries are few and uncom­pli­cat­ed. It’s the shad­ow in the back of the room where I sit to write, the voice I hear only when I see the let­ters appear on the blank screen, the child who refus­es to grow up lest she for­get to bear wit­ness— it is she whose mem­o­ries I write from.

David Cohen is a senior edi­tor at Politi­co. He has been in the jour­nal­ism busi­ness since 1985 and wrote the book Rugged and Endur­ing: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Foot­ball. He resides in Rockville, MD.; his wife, Deb­o­rah Bod­in Cohen, writes Jew­ish children’s books.

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