Gina B. Nahai
(MacAdam Cage, 2007)
Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai is the story of twelve year old Yaas. She’s born to a mother who grew up in the slums of South Tehran, one block from the old Jewish ghetto; her father is the son of wealthy Iranian Jews. When her father falls in love with a beautiful Muslim woman, he plans to leave her and her mother. Despite a bewildering and mysterious illness, Yaas is determined to find a way to prevent her father from leaving them.
The novel is set in Iran just before the Islamic Revolution, as the country is on the verge of erupting. “He didn’t know that the fires would rage in the night—ten millions fists waving in the air, black banners hanging from every rooftop, red carnations in the barrel of every soldier’s gun while, behind closed doors, priests in black robes laughed at the folly of a people who, given the choice had opted for servitude over freedom.” Nahai has stripped away the illusion of external beauty and shows the true natue of obsession. Both Bahar and Omid, Yaas’s parents, are obsessed: Bahar with Omid, and Omid with his mistress. Yaas is stuck in the middle. Nahai is adept at delivering the emotions of a child. “He did love me, but he loved Niyaz more. It wasn’t a fair fight; not one I was expected to win.”
Yet there are times when Nahai loses the voice of a twelve year old —“I’ve prayed with this family on Yom Kippur, sat with them at seders, slept outside in a sukkah. I’ve seen them once a week since I can remember and in all that time, I’ve not heard mention of a lost son.” But the gaffes are infrequent, and the reader is quickly pulled back into the mind of a twelve year old.
Outcast by everyone, Yaas strives to fit in. “I walk into my grandparents’ house hoping I will find the way, each time, to make them forget that I’m my father’s child.” Nahai is at her best when writing from this perspective: “I have hazel eyes and white skin—hence my name, which in Farsi means ‘poet jasmine’. But you don’t have to look far to see that it doesn’t suit me…” and “I know, too, that I’ve been born with a second disadvantage: I have red hair and freckles—features that are considered unattractive by Iranians.”
The narrative is divided into several parts, flowing easily from one section to the other. The first part is the story of Yaas’s mother meeting with her father. Details are richly drawn out. “The girl on the street—her name is Bahar—would not stand out in any crowd. She’s not particularly beautiful, or smart, or endowed with exceptional wit, but she has a zest for life….”
Written mostly in present tense, the narrative is infused with a breathlessness which lends itself well to the story. However, the shifting of point of view becomes confusing at times: Yaas’s mother, her father, his mistress, her father’s mother, his father. The scenes and dialogue with these characters disturb the natural flow of Nahai’s work.
Nevertheless, Caspian Rain is a thrill to read. Heartbreak and hope fill the pages. Nahai delves deep into fear, love, jealousy, and obsession—and with evocative language, and a rich and complex story, takes us to another culture.