Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Protests, prisons and poetry

Beautiful language ties together intertwined Iranian stories of suffering and survival

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This debut novel set in post-revolutionary Iran paints an intimate, up-close portrait of the fragmented lives and suffering of three generations of men and women at the hands of a brutal regime.

Iranian-born Sahar Delijani, 30, who grew up in California and now lives in Turin, Italy, bases the story on her own life experiences and those of her family and friends.

Most of the events span three decades, beginning in 1983, in the wake of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and take place in the country's capital, Tehran. The story winds down thousands of miles away in Turin.

The tale begins with a gripping account of Azar, a young pregnant woman incarcerated in Iran's notorious Evin Prison.

It is the same prison where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi is reported to have been murdered in 1983, and where Ontario-based memoirist Marina Nemat (The Prisoner of Tehran) spent two years in the same period.

Azar, blindfolded and in the advanced stages of labour, is tossed about in the back of a van as she is transported to a hospital. But once there she is interrogated instead. After finally being allowed to give birth, and though she is ill, she is taken back to prison with her new daughter, Neda.

There, the baby brightens the lives of her fellow inmates but is soon snatched away from Azar and sent to live with relatives.

Children of the Jacaranda Tree is composed of a series of vignettes, roughly seven sections, each of which at first appears to be a separate story.

The connections among the characters become apparent, however, as Delijani reaches the final sections. Then we see that the characters are actually related to each other, either by blood or by circumstance.

In one vignette, a three-year-old eating his breakfast watches helplessly as his parents are dragged away to prison by the Revolutionary Guards. An aunt, Leila, eventually appears to rescue him and, with the help of her aging but devoted parents, they raise the child along with several other nieces and nephews as though they were their own.

In another section, Amir, a young protester, also in Evin Prison, hangs onto dreams of his wife, their beautiful life together, and their new baby in order to cope with his dangerously uncertain future.

Delijani underlines the interconnectedness of the characters when Leila visualizes the children she cares for, the children of the imprisoned protesters, as branches of the beloved jacaranda tree in their courtyard, their destinies intertwined.

In the final vignette, Delijani reintroduces Neda. Now a young adult, she compares her parents' politically active generation to the current young generation of Iranian protesters.

"What was the difference other than now the killing had been transformed to the streets; that it was now bolder, in the open, the blood glittering under broad daylight and not behind prison walls, en masse, in the middle of the night?"

It is sometimes difficult to keep track of the connections among the many characters. The beginning sections are the most powerful and there are awkward gaps at times when Delijani transitions from past to present.

However, her prose compensates. She writes in such an intimately detailed manner, and with words so descriptive and evocative, that she brings the distant people and places of the story so much closer.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 A1

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