Aria, the striking debut novel from Vancouver writer Nazanine Hozar, begins in 1953, in Tehran. In the cold of a winter night, Mehri gives birth to a daughter, “cursed, like her mother.” Mehri abandons the girl in an alley, where she is found — surrounded by wild dogs — by Behrouz, a driver for the army. He takes the girl as his own, and gives her a name. “‘I’ll name you Aria, after all the world’s pain and all the world’s loves,’ he said. ‘It will be as if you had never been abandoned. And when you open your mouth to speak, all the world will know you.’”
With that prologue, Hozar introduces not just a character but an entire world, and she will follow both for more than four decades of pain and loves. Aria’s own story is something of an odyssey through circumstances and classes: neglected and abused by Behrouz’ wife Zahra, she is taken in by the wealthy Fereshteh, who treats her as an heir, while also teaching her the value of service, compelling her to teach the young children of the Shirazi family to read.
Aria’s story also serves as an entry to a half-century of Iranian history — from her birth just before the U.S. and U.K.-backed coup which removed Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq from power, to decades of life under the Shah, to the Revolution which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979, to life in the Islamic Republic.
Keeping sweeping historical events from overwhelming the intimate and personal is a tricky balancing act, and one in which Hozar largely succeeds. Aria serves as the reader’s focal point, but the story opens up to incorporate a broad cross-section of Iranian lives, spanning social classes, religious faiths and historical developments, through her.
Thus, for example, readers are introduced to a young boy as a childhood friend of Aria’s, and then follow the gradual radicalization (and the underlying appeal of the fundamentalist movement) of this character even after he departs from Aria’s life, and Aria herself is not fully privy to this development. To Hozar’s considerable credit, the characters feel complex and naturally developed; they have the vitality of living people, rather than stand-ins or examples of historical trends.
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As the story of that radicalization will attest, Aria is, at its heart, a story not about a place, or about historical events, but about the human need to belong. For Aria, this comes down to her three mothers: “a mother who left her, a mother who beat her, and a mother who loved her but couldn’t say so.” For other characters, this search for place, for community, takes on other forms, but the underlying need is the same, a force which cannot only save lives, or destroy them, but can sway the very course of empires.
Robert J. Wiersema is the author, most recently, of Seven Crow Stories.