By Dina Nayeri
I hated the protagonist as much as I loved this book, top to bottom, in and out, cover to cover. I took screenshots and sent it to myself (I accidentally air dropped a page to some stranger on the tube, and we both laughed), and some to Lukas. I can’t even with this book.
This is the review I have taken the longest to write, because I am so unsure of how to write it, or even why I liked it so much.
First of all, it’s a beautiful story. At heart, it’s the story of a girl and her father, and how these things can be strained by things like age, distance, culture, change, and so on. These gave me moments of introspection and reflection, as I thought about how fairly I treated my own parents, and insight, because I thought she had the parental voice down perfectly and you see things from their point of view.
Second, it’s an honest, sincere story. The author was a refugee from Iran as a child (she in fact wrote a letter in The Guardian that became very popular – you don’t need to read it, because a lot of it is repeated in the book) and these are basically her experiences. I am writing these reviews while on my 50th book, which means the last book I read was the comic Persepolis that you gifted me. It is interesting because both are young women who flee Iran for greener pastures in the West. However, perhaps because her father in Refuge stays in Iran and a portion of the story is from his point of view or perhaps because her mistakes are made very clear from other voices in the story (particularly her parents’), I found her to be an altogether more sympathetic character than the lead in Persepolis. There is a real sincerity to this book that made me, even though I so disliked her character, to appreciate her struggles and try to see things from her point of view.
For example, she has her partner in the book, and they have all these difficulties – and you can empathize with both of them, which is such a difficult line to toe and really speaks to the reflection the author herself has given to things and how well this carries across.
Third, it’s gorgeous writing. Her father is a huge fan of Rumi and that poetry seeps through so much of the book – partially because it seems to be how her dad speaks all the time, poetically! For one example (there are so many, this is the first I happened to find):
As she was leaving, he called after her, “Khanom, can I ask you why you wanted a divorce? Was he an addict or a philanderer or what?”
She smiled. “Those are just reasons for courts.”
“What then?” he pressed. “Did you fall in love? Why the hysterics?”
She shrugged. “It’s a curse to be a bad fit. It’s like spending every day trying to force a hundred mixed-up lids onto the wrong jars. People think that’s not enough reason, but it’s the one thing that’s unfixable. It poisons everything.”
Fourth, it’s insightful. Now this is an odd one. But it looks at refugees and their lived experiences both in the US and Western European contexts, and there are a few differences that are worth appreciating. It also looks at Iran; it’s legal system, it’s countryside. It’s able to take a broad approach to the country because her characters traverse so much of it. Also, the relationship between her and her partner gave me so much to think about. I suppose it also happened to be that I read this book at just the right time.
I enjoyed this book so much, it left me not just satisfied, but thinking, in the best way possible.
Note: this is one of the few books where if an author is of hyphenated origin (Indian-American), I’m including that first part. I usually don’t, both to challenge ourselves further and in recognition of their privilege in being “American”, even if it comes second – but Nayeri was a refugee and the book is about exactly that experience. It is essentially the story of her life and I thought it was fair in this case to acknowledge those roots.