by Gina Nahai
Reviewed by Nasrin Rahimieh
Like drops of acid, Gina Nahai's words burn the pages of this moving novel about the fate of women in prerevolutionary Iran. This Iranian American writer, a transplant from Tehran to California in the wake of the 1979 revolution, conjures up resilient women contending with a society in transition. We see women from all walks of life struggling to carve out a space for themselves in a cosmopolitan environment, captivated by the trappings of modernity, yet held back by tradition.
Caspian Rain is the story of Yaas, the only child of an unlikely couple. Her mother, Bahar, whose name means spring, is born into a poor family in Tehran's Jewish quarter. True to her name, Bahar is filled with exuberance, but she mistakenly assumes that beyond the ghetto lie mobility and freedom and that marriage will provide her with an entrï¿½e to a new life. When a chance meeting brings her together with her future husband, Omid, she overlooks all that separates her from his affluent family. In Persian, Omid means hope, and on him Bahar pins her dreams for escaping her destiny.
But instead of gaining access to higher education and a professional life, Bahar enters a circle of women preoccupied with the latest fashions and interminable dinner parties. The city's elite, she discovers, flaunt their wealth and mimic Western norms but continue to view wives as extensions of their husbands. The women appear to have internalized the society's image of themselves: "Every woman I know, even the ones who refer to themselves as 'thinking people,' which means they understand more than most women but not as much as men, believes that girls are like weeds; they grow anywhere, survive any illness and misfortune, even if you don't want them to."
There is little room for women to maneuver outside the bounds of marriage, even if they have the economic means to strike out on their own. Having a casual relationship, acting on passion or seeking work all have the potential to reduce them to social pariahs.
Not only does Bahar fail to realize her own dream, but her daughter, Yaas, is born with a debilitating genetic disease that makes her life even harder than her mother's. Bearing the dual mark of her mother's class and genetic shortcomings, Yaas tries in vain to save her parents' marriage by acting as their intermediary. But this family, like the Iranian society of the time, is riddled with too many contradictions. Its disintegration coincides with a revolution whose destructive forces envelop men and women, rich and poor alike. Nahai's alluring poetic style draws us into the lives of her female characters. We identify with their hopes and desires, but we also sense their frustration. Beneath the novel's calm and captivating prose is a powerful testament to Iranian women's fight against oppression.
Nasrin Rahimieh is a professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, and the Maseeh Chair and director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture.