Children of a revolution

Sahar Delijani

An oppressive Iranian regime destroys families. Decades later, the deep wounds are yet to be healed. Kamila Shamsie reviews this new novel for The Guardian

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

Children of the Jacaranda Tree is a novel with a great weight of history attached to it. This much is made explicit by the author's note that accompanies the proof copies, telling readers that this is ‘an attempt … to shed light on this dark moment in Iranian history, on its tales of violence, prison and death … to give voice not only to the victims of this atrocity but also to the ordeal of their families and their children.’

The ‘dark moment’ is 1988, when thousands, or tens of thousands, of political prisoners were assassinated in Iran; their number included Sahar Delijani's uncle. Her parents were fortunate to have been released from prison prior to the ‘purge’.

At the start of the novel, it seems that Delijani has placed too great a pressure on herself to find the language and structure to relate such a terrible tale. The first chapter tells the story of a political prisoner giving birth in Tehran's Evin prison, knowing that her child will soon be taken away from her. The language is too overheated to be convincing, and there are a confusing number of character names mentioned – several women prisoners, their unseen relatives, a male guard. Many of these characters play, at most, a minor role, and the author's lack of control seems the most obvious explanation.

But as the book continues it becomes apparent that there is a clear purpose behind the naming. Each chapter tells the story of a different person connected to that original prison cell, and every named character from the first chapter becomes significant, directly or through their children, at some point in the book. At the centre of the web of connections are three women prisoners – Azar, who gives birth in prison; Firoozeh, who is known to have turned informant in exchange for prison privileges; Parisa, who has one child growing up outside prison and is pregnant with a second.

Through these women and their families a narrative emerges that is more effective than one that cleaves to an individual. The pain of women prisoners who have to give up their children; the pain of parents and sisters who don't know what is happening to those they love who are imprisoned; the pain of letting go of the nephews and nieces you've been raising, when their mothers are finally released from prison; the pain of suppressing the truth; the pain of discovering the truth; the pain of leaving Iran, the pain of staying and the pain of return: all these are held within these linked stories.

The novel is at its best with the stories of the younger generation – the children who spent their childhoods separated from their imprisoned parents. Some of them have moved away from Iran, others have stayed, but the ties that bind them to each other and to their country remain strong. It is this second generation that takes to the streets in Iran's ‘green  revolution’ of 2009 and faces the violent reprisals that follow. In the final chapter, Neda – who was the baby whose birth opens the novel – is in Italy, the country that has become her home, along with an Iranian man, Reza, who has recently arrived in Turin.

The fascination and slight edge of guilt with which an expatriate approaches someone who has continued to be part of their shared nation's history is well evoked, as is the moment when Reza speaks of his shock at the regime's brutality and Neda's response is anger – ‘Your worst nightmares came true 23 years ago,’ she wants to shout at him.

Although the English-speaking world may be the first readers of this novel, it seems clear that Delijani's more immediate concern is with reminding Iranians (expatriate or otherwise) of their own history – this is not an ‘explaining Iran to those who don't know it’ book, but something far more visceral….

Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows is published by Bloomsbury.

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