Book Review: The Good Daughter

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On March 2, over 200 Iranian protesters were arrested in the wake of the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Almost a century earlier, in 1921, a young woman was born to an Iranian carpet salesman and his wife. The connection between the two events might seem tenuous, but it reflects two aspects of a country that is at once defined by its rich past and its chaotic present. It is a troubling dichotomy of the personal and the political that Jasmin Darznik explores in her new book, "The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life" - a story that spans the tumult and the violence of 20th century Iran through the eyes of three captivating women.

Surrounded by the arid ridges of the Zagros Mountains and couched between the war-torn zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran has remained thoroughly isolated from the West. For Darznik, this distance was even more pronounced. Born in Tehran, Darznik and her family emigrated to the United States when she was only three, and instead of indulging in the cultural traditions of her homeland, she drifted towards the unthinkable - miniskirts and modernist literature. But, Darznik moved on, matured, and became a professor of English while her mother, Lili, settled into the family's new life in San Francisco.

While helping her mother move, Darznik discovered a photo of her mother, no older than fourteen, dressed as a bride. With equal parts shock and intrigue, Darznik spent the next year of her life listening to tapes that her mother recorded, recounting the history of their family's disordered life back in Iran. Beginning in 1921 with the birth of Darnik's grandmother and ending in the present, the story is unrelenting in its detailing of the domestic abuse and personal tragedy Darznik's mother and grandmother were forced to endure. The repeated episodes of brutality, both verbal and physical, culminated in the moment when Darznik's mother was forced to give up her first-born daughter, Sara - a half-sister that Darznik never even knew existed.

The memoir, like most memoirs, is painfully personal, but as Darznik mentioned in a phone interview, that was not the sole motivation for her book. Iran has "huge gaps in the historical record and even fewer accounts of women's lives," she claims. And even though "women are the most popular writers in Iran, that writing consists only of fiction." The personal experiences of women remain, as she puts it, "taboo" in the Iranian consciousness. It is only through the lens of Iranian immigrants such as Darznik or Marjane Satrapi (with her "Persepolis" series) do we, as Westerners, encounter the truth behind an isolated Iran.

In an effort to demystify and expose the cloistered culture of Iran, "The Good Daughter" takes on an almost ethnographic feel. Rituals of tea drinking, food preparation and the application of "rose water behind the ears and between the cleft of breast(s)" elevate Darznik's work to much more than just memoir. The book becomes a fascinating intrigue into the private lives of those who live in a country that produces moments of violence and yet, remains enviably exotic. It is a tantalizing tension that Darznik draws out for us.

Although the visions of cherry trees, embroidered tunics and silken veils may elicit idyllic notions of a faraway fantasy, those same veils close the world off from Iran and obscure the harsh realities of the women who wear them. Darznik rips this veil away and, in the end, reveals not just a personal memoir steeped in tragedy, but also, a memoir about a country torn between turbulence and tradition.






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