Maman Zinat did not respond. She seemed too upset to speak. Aghajaan too fell silent, drinking his tea in one angry gulp. Leila turned her gaze away from her mother and father and let it glide on the large chunky wardrobe that no longer contained any clothes, only blankets and covers for the three children. She had never understood why her sisters had kept on fighting even though the revolution was over, a war had taken its place, and everyone was first struggling to make a new beginning and later to ward off death. But Simin and Parisa fought on, along with their husbands. They threw leaflets over walls, held secret meetings at home, read outlawed books, watched the news and jotted down how many times the name of the Supreme Leader was mentioned and how his name was taking over everything, growing louder, omnipresent, and how their own political presence—along with all the others not part of the regime—was being scratched out, their existence denied, stifled, washed clean, like a stain on a tablecloth. They sat there in front of the television screen, pens in hand, putting into numbers how they were slowly vanishing, purged from the collective memory of the country, buried alive. They were now the enemy, the anti-revolutionaries. That was shortly before their arrest, when the process of being undone came to its last strike.
Sahar Delijani’s debut novel Children of the Jacaranda Tree is a deeply personal web of connected narratives detailing the lives of three generations of men and women—husbands, wives, grandparents, parents, and children—irrevocably affected by the Iranian revolution. The events of the book earn their narrative weight from the summer of 1988: nine years after the revolution, which installed the Islamic republic to the head of Iran, the country’s prisons were purged. Many were killed, including the author’s uncle, and the author herself was born behind bars.
The novel opens in 1983, in Evin Prison, Tehran. Azar is incarcerated as an anti-revolutionary. She’s interrogated harshly, and as the Iraq war enters its third year, she has neither seen nor experienced life in the city of Tehran for months. She is also pregnant, giving birth to a young daughter, Neda, in a prison hospital, away from her husband Ismael, who has also been imprisoned for anti-revolutionary crimes. They fear the Sisters and the Brothers—their guards, uninterested in the safety or wellbeing of their charges. Together with several other prisoners, Azar takes care of little Neda, fearing the inevitable moment her daughter will be taken away from her.
The novel’s second section, taking place in Tehran in 1987, is from the perspective of family members of jailed anti-revolutionaries. We see through the eyes of a young woman named Leila how one person’s fight for freedom is another’s selfish act—because “Anti-revolutionary sisters meant an anti-revolution family.” The novel is quick to humanize those interned and those still free by showing both equally capable of error and selfishness, depending on another’s unshared perspective.
In the third section, taking place from 1983 to 1988 in the Komiteh Mochtarak Detention Center, introduces Amir, a twenty-something detainee sentenced to six years for a litany of crimes: “Founding a Marxist group, participating in a Marxist group, planning a coup, planning the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran, atheism…” Amir’s wife and new-to-the-world daughter are safe outside of the prison, though their interaction is minimal. Amir passes his days in hope, fashioning a bracelet for his daughter, Sheida, from a small nail pulled from a wooden box in what passes for a prison washroom, thread pulled from socks, and collected date stones.
From this point forward, the novel marches on in years, jumping back in time occasionally to detail the relationship between Sheida’s mother Maryam and Amir, but for the most part progressing through to 2011 as it tracks the movements of the children and family members of anti-revolutionaries lost or forever changed by their time in prison.
In many ways, Children of the Jacaranda Tree echoes the structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The novel is a pyramid, beginning with one set of individuals, then branching off into another, and another still, until it begins resolving the other halves of the lives previously introduced, the narrative gradually winding its way around again to the story of Azar and Neda in the final section. What differs from the beginning of the pyramid to the end is the perspective: nearly thirty years have passed, and Neda, the child born in Evin Prison, is living now in Turin, Italy, and is in control of how her story will end.
The titular jacaranda tree is symbolic in many ways, both subtle and overt. While it is referenced several times throughout as a focal point of happier memories—days gone by, what once was and never will be again—it is also representative of the many paths the individual stories take as they divert, sometimes unexpectedly, down one branch of family history or another.
I appreciated the slight non-linearity to Children of the Jacaranda Tree and its altogether well managed structure. The manner in which Delijani resolves the novel’s many disparate plots to tell a singular family’s wide reaching and often-tragic tale is more than satisfying. There is in the final section a six-degrees-of-separation-moment with Reza’s father and Neda’s mother that mars the otherwise quite believable nature of the story being told. However, because so much of the novel’s detail has been culled from true events in the author’s life and the lives of several members of her family, I’m not going to say it is impossible that things happened the way they are written, merely that given the likelihood of such an event, acceptance requires a small leap of faith.
Delijani’s writing is confident, though I felt it occasionally wanting in the area of physical detail; a greater visual sense of place and environment would have helped with the sometimes fragmented structure of the novel as it shifts quickly from one life to another.
On the subject of lives, it is Sheida and her relationship with her mother Maryam that provides the novel’s strongest narrative and emotional hooks. The ramifications of the 1988 purge are especially strong when seen through the eyes of a young woman grasping at a thinly veiled truth—one that will change for the rest of her life how she sees her father.
Children of the Jacaranda Tree is disturbing and heart wrenching, yet at times unexpectedly beautiful. The resilience on display in the face of startling inhumanity is moving and effective—all the more knowing that many elements within the narrative are pulled from true events. Recommended.