You don’t encounter many books set in the pre-20th-century Muslim world. (At least, not if you don’t know any Middle Eastern languages, you don’t.) Which is really a shame for those of us who like to learn about the world via historical fiction. So I was excited to discover this book, and happier still when it turned out to be good.
This is essentially a coming-of-age tale set in 17th century Iran. When the (unnamed) protagonist’s father dies, leaving her and her mother without any source of income, the two travel to Isfahan to live with a distant relative. The protagonist discovers that she has rare skills in carpetmaking (and it’s a good time to be a carpetmaker in Iran given Shah Abbas’s patronage of the arts, and that art in particular), but there’s no money for her dowry, and a string of ill-considered decisions leaves her in deep trouble.
As a historical novel, this one is entirely successful. It paints a colorful, detailed picture of a place and its culture. I couldn’t have asked for more in that regard. And Amirrezvani is a truly skilled storyteller: while the pacing is rather slow, the writing is immersive and so it’s easy to get caught up in the protagonist’s travails. Overall this is a truly well-crafted novel. I also enjoyed the several folk tales scattered throughout the book; they add atmosphere and depth to the characters’ world. The characters themselves are interesting enough. One thing I particularly enjoyed is that the protagonist and her mother really do have to solve their own problems: at several points in the book I thought they might be saved by coincidence, the kindness of strangers or some such thing, but this book doesn’t work that way. And it’s not as predictable as it initially appeared, either.
So, I would certainly recommend this book. I give four stars instead of five because while I certainly enjoyed it, I didn’t love it; I wonder a little if the characters would have been interesting enough to sustain it had the setting not been so fascinating. But the author is very talented and I’ll be on the lookout for more from her.