Debut Novel Offers Compelling Look at the Cost of Revolution

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The phrase "beach read" typically calls to mind a certain sort of book: usually fiction, light of subject matter, an easy read.

Although Dalia Sofer's first novel, the August Book Sense Pick The Septembers of Shiraz (HarperCollins), is far from fluffy, it certainly is a page-turner -- and a good recommendation for late summer reading lists.

Sofer's literate, compelling, and compulsively readable novel is set in Tehran, Iran, in 1981, in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Isaac Amin, a rare-gem dealer, is arrested by revolutionaries who accuse him of being a Zionist spy. He's taken to jail, and his hard work -- and resulting wealth and prestige -- that were once a source of satisfaction become a source of danger, as Isaac's envious jailers declare his riches and secular lifestyle reasons to suspect him of treason.

Even as Isaac's family fears he will never return, the mundanity of everyday life continues, creating a fascinating tension, as what was once normal becomes fraught with risk and strangeness.

Dalia Sofer
Photo: Shahrzad Elghanayan

The realism of The Septembers of Shiraz is due to Sofer's writing skill, certainly, and her time spent studying the craft of fiction (she has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and was a resident at Yaddo) and her thorough research on the social landscape of 1980s Iran.

But there is another aspect to the novel's verity, one that makes the tale even more compelling. While many authors answer in the negative when asked the inevitable "Is this book based on your life?" question, Sofer's reply is a bit more complex.

"I would say the book is loosely based on my life, in that I did live through the revolution," she explained. "I was a child at the time, and my father was imprisoned. But what my characters undergo is really quite different from my own experiences."

About her father's imprisonment, she said, "My father just suddenly disappeared. He was in prison for about a month, and we didn't know where he was or whether he was alive."

Sofer was born in Tehran in 1972 and fled Iran with her family in 1982. They first went to Israel, and then to New York City, where her older brothers were waiting.

As she wrote the novel, Sofer drew inspiration from books and photos by "a wonderful Iranian photographer" named Abbas. "He photographed pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran, and created really powerful images," she explained.

Sofer has done the same in The Septembers of Shiraz. With sympathy and a sharp eye, she illuminates the ways in which Isaac's family moves through life with new awareness: Farnaz, Isaac's wife, wonders if her longtime housekeeper's terseness belies a deeper resentment or the capacity for betrayal. Young Shirin no longer trusts her school acquaintances, and college-student Parvaz, who lives in Brooklyn, feels even more disconnected from his family and his country.

Sofer's novel easily moves between the family members' viewpoints and thoughtfully evokes a country that has been forever changed by war -- a homeland that remains beloved on some level, even as it becomes dangerous to its citizens. As the days pass and the seasons change during Isaac's imprisonment, the questions (Will Isaac be released? What will become of his business? Will other family members be arrested? Will they have to flee the only place they know? Can anyone be trusted?) build, making for a suspenseful read.

Sofer said of The Septembers of Shiraz, "This book is my true love. From the time I began writing it until now, when it's being published, it's been a total of seven years."

Sofer's residency at Yaddo was key to the book's evolution. "I got a lot of really good work done, especially for the prison scenes, because you are so isolated when you're there," she said, adding with a laugh, "I'm not saying Yaddo is like prison! It was really wonderful in that I wasn't in my normal environment -- I was sort of removed from people. That really helps you go to a different level, to become so engulfed in your characters."

Through those characters, Sofer explores the ways in which alienation can forever alter a family, a city, a country. "Losing all sense of safety and trust ... the atmosphere it creates in the whole country is very chaotic, and the sense of distress it creates is very toxic," she said. "I'm looking to convey that this creates a sort of schizophrenic atmosphere in which you're saying one thing, but feeling something else."

Sofer noted that the Parvaz character represents another aspect of alienation, one that is more subtle than what Isaac and the rest of the family are feeling in Iran. She explained, "He is alienated for not being Jewish enough, so he can't consummate his love affair" with his landlord's daughter, who is part of a devout Hasidic Jewish family.

"All that categorization and classification! It's very hard to live your life that way," she said. "People are constantly being classified as one thing or another, through no fault of their own."

For now, though, Sofer will occupy the promising-debut-novelist category as she tours bookstores and participates in Jewish Book Council events. She is working on a second novel she said is quite different from Shiraz and wondering what will happen after her book's publication this week.

Sofer said she doesn't yet have anything planned for the book's debut-date: "You wake up [on big days] thinking the world will change, but it will be just another day." Perhaps it shall, but those who read this gem of a novel will appreciate anew the value of just another day. -- Linda M. Castellitto