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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of THE LAST DAYS OF CAFÉ LEILA by Donia Bijan (New Release)

2 Stars
I enjoy books which illuminate other cultures so I really looked forward to reading this book.  Though it does indeed provide details about Iranian culture, it does so in a narrative that I can only describe as awkward and unsophisticated. 

Noor, recently divorced, returns to Iran after a 30-year absence to visit her aging father Zod.  Noor is accompanied by her recalcitrant teenaged daughter Lily.  In Tehran, Zod continues to run a restaurant, Café Leila, which is a neighbourhood gathering place started years earlier by his parents.  Noor is returning home but Lily has difficulty adjusting to life in Iran. 

There are numerous flashbacks.  The reader learns about the emigration of Zod’s parents from Russia; Zod’s studies in Paris and his marriage to Pari; Pari’s death; Noor’s life in California and her marriage and divorce.  There are even flashbacks describing the lives of the employees at the café. 

The story is narrated from multiple perspectives:  Zod, Pari, Noor, Lily, Lily’s father, Noor’s brother, Zod’s estranged brother, Zod’s sister-in-law, the café’s errand boy, etc.  The author obviously wanted to create well-rounded characters, but the effect is a lack of focus. 

The impression is that the author didn’t know whom to focus on so she put a spotlight on everyone.  For example, it is not necessary to go on and on about Karim’s becoming besotted with Lily.  We are told that he can’t stop staring at her and that he can’t concentrate at school and that he keeps repeating her name to himself and that he gets her a kitten and that he will do anything for her and . . .  Karim is a minor character and there seems little purpose to being repeatedly told that he is in love with Lily.  For all the references to him, Karim remains a flat character. 

Zod is a major character but he is not believable.  He is just too good to be true.  He cares about everyone, is wise, is unfailingly optimistic, and is loved by everyone.  He is given the homage “never seen but for martyrs and mullahs”?!  His behaviour, however, is inconsistent.  He tells his daughter to visit him and to bring Lily with her:  “Pack a bag for you and Lily and come visit your old father” but then he scolds her:  “You brought Lily into danger and discomfort . . .”  He even asks, “What lesson did Noor aim to teach by bringing her here?” 

There is much telling and little showing in the book.  Noor is supposed to be a dynamic character who grows, but we are only told that she grows.  We are given a thorough description of her flaws:  “Blinded by her troubles, unable to raise her head, to exert herself, clinging to the exaggerated memories of her youth.  When had this girl, who defied them in childhood, who never got her way fast enough, grown timid and undemanding, so frustratingly passive in the face of humiliation?  Why did she think herself so undeserving of love, merely enduring life like a pebble in her shoe and side stepping people’s shortcomings, talking as though she had caused Nelson’s infidelity – a watchfulness grown inward, doubtful and wary of her own child even.”   Her parenting is thoroughly criticized:  “For too long Noor had auditioned for motherhood, fun mom one day to authoritarian the next, careening from affectionate to cool, indulgent to critical, hands-off to hovering, and if Nelson was the arbiter, the easygoing dad, there to keep the peace and make their meals festive, it only heightened the pitch of her pendulum.  It was exhausting being Noor, but she meant well.  She always had meant well.”

Then we are told that Noor’s “reaching out to Nelson, recognizing she couldn’t sway Lily without him, was a big step for her” and “Noor eventually came to learn that we see what we want to see.”  We don’t see her learning these lessons; we are told she has these insights.  Noor’s only observation about her own behaviour is that she has taught her daughter to be afraid:  “’all I’ve ever done is show you how to be afraid.’”  Of course Lily’s behaviour with Karim does not seem like that of someone who is afraid.  Her father, in fact, loves her because “she could not be depended upon to comply with form.  Her bold, brutal honesty was what he admired.”  And Noor’s decision at the end suggests she is still auditioning for motherhood so there is little growth in her character. 

One of the major techniques of showing is dialogue.  This novel has little dialogue and certainly no extended conversations that would reveal character.  The dialogue that is included seems to serve little purpose.  For instance, a discussion about the ingredients in piroshkies is hardly revealing; Noor asks her father, “’Didn’t you used to put cream in the spinach filling?’” and Zod answers, “’Mm.  And sometimes hard-boiled eggs.’” 

There are intrusive statements and comments throughout.  In case the reader wouldn’t realize it, he/she is told “Neither Lily nor Karim could be expected to understand a world where such things were possible, that an innocent girl would be burned alive for refusing a ludicrous marriage proposal.”  The narrator even addresses the reader:  “Maybe if you’ve lived as long as he had, you knew all too well that looking for blame was futile, that you need not go back and ask for explanations.”  And the tone can be downright preachy:  “Because if our parents didn’t exalt us, we spend our adult lives blaming them – for not doing this, and not doing that, not being ‘supportive,’ not making an appearance at our first recital, being overprotective or aloof, damaging our self-esteem.  Yet at our best or worst, who sees everything?  Who knows us best?  Who waits and waits to see what we yet may be?  Then one day they’re gone and it’s just you, and there’s nothing left to squeeze, no one to blame for the dismay over the course your life has taken.”

As I mentioned at the beginning, I love books that highlight other cultures.  The problem with this book is that it sounds like an essay at times:  “The cuisine of Northern Iran, overlooked and underrated, is unlike most Persian food in that it’s as unfussy and lighthearted as the people from that region.”  And “It’s customary in Iran for a family member to wash the body of the deceased; there are no undertakers and no viewings, burial is swift.”  We are told that Noor’s sister-in-law “was incapable of tarof (a custom of self-deference exclusive to Iranians)” and then the reader is given several examples of her lack of decorum.  Since this sister-in-law never appears in the novel, is the purpose of this paragraph just to discuss an Iranian custom?  And the descriptions of food go on and on:  “He filled the pockets not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding, smoked sturgeon, potatoes and dill, cabbage and caraway apples, duck confit and chopped orange peel . . .”

The author has included some Farsi to add local colour but, again, the translations are awkwardly inserted in parentheses immediately afterwards:  “’Agha (Mr.) Nejad, how are you feeling?’”  A reader shouldn’t have to be told that tarof means self-deference when the subsequent sentence (“She spoke frankly and without decorum”) indicates its meaning.  And would a person actually use a conjunction, and only a conjunction, in another language:  “’It’s been a good adventure for her, and you, pero (but) –‘”   When Lily asks Karim, who speaks little or no English, “’How do you say brother?’” he understands her question and immediately replies, “’Baradar’”? 

I fear I have been rather harsh in my review, but I honestly find little to recommend this book.  I read an eARC so perhaps changes will be made.  

Note:  I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.