The Woman Who Read Too Much, (TWWRTM) by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, was a book I picked off my to-be-read (TBR) shelf at random. The sand coloured cover told me nothing, how I wish the British publisher had opted for something like this. I could not remember knowing anything of the author or the title, yet at some point I’d decided that this novel would be worth spending time with.
My TBR shelf is not a guaranteed source of delightful writing, is anyone’s? But this one delivered. The story is told in four books, Mother, Wife, Sister and Daughter. Each describes the events leading to the death of Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, ‘the poetess of Qazvin’, in 1852. It spans the period between two assassination attempts on The Shah of Persia, Nasiru’d-Din, in 1852 and 1896. Both key events are described in the first few pages, and form a recurring reference point.
After that, it’s a question of keeping your wits about you as we jump backwards and forwards through time, with a cast of characters who, on first acquaintance, don’t seem attractive. The poetess is a phantom, for a large part of the novel. Other characters hate her, fear her, love her, spread gossip and rumours about her exploits, and in doing so, demonstrate why she was so controversial.
Nakhjavani says the book was written to ‘tell the unrecorded stories of mothers daughters, sisters, and wives in nineteenth-century Iran.’ It is a story about power and dynasty, and builds outwards from the palace through the households of key political figures.
From the first scene, when the Shah dies in the lap of an old beggar woman ‘notorious for her lies and her deformities‘, while visiting his wife’s grave, the question about the significance and worthiness of women is raised.
Since it was inconceivable that his majesty should have had traffic with such a creature and would have caused a scandal to arrest her, given the circumstances of his death, they simply kicked her in the ribs and let her go.
It is not just some character’s who grow in this novel, what happens as they grow, is that I learn to look beneath the surface. Take the mayor’s wife who, seen from the perspective of the Shah’s mother in the first book, has seemed only loud and greedy. In the following books, we get closer to her. I love the playfulness of this description from The Book of The Wife:
The Mayor’s Wife was known for her volubility. Her shrill voice was as familiar as garlic in the mosque, and rendered the veil irrelevant in the bazaar. Her words drifted over the walls and down the alleys, like the sizzling of kebabs and the smell of fried onions. Her opinions even penetrated through the palace gates at times, and lingered in the royal anderoun with the persistence of fenugreek.
The food analogies are appropriate, because…
…the Mayor’s Wife was the queen of cuisine as well as gossip, despite her lack of court and clerical connections. Few had attained the perfection of her pickles, none achieved the orthodoxy of her rice. Her jams had the consistency of truth, according to connoisseurs, and were the despair of all but the philosophical. Her conserves, too, were suspended in pure faith, and needed no interpretation.
This, without apology, is women’s writing. It deals with the domestic, observing how, even in a society where their lives are controlled and seem to be completely subservient, they impact on his-story.
As might be expected with such a story, a central theme is education. What is it? How does having or not having it impact on lives and events? This novel that made me think about how much many of us take our access to learning for granted.
It also allowed me access to a society that I otherwise know either from the perspective of news and documentary stories, or through the stories of Sheherazade’s, One Thousand and One nights. It’s so easy to stay in a rut with my reading. I must explore more.