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Review: Women Without Men (Shahrnush Parsipur)

Title: Women Without Men: a novel of modern Iran
Author: Shahrnush Parsipur
Genre: Adult fiction
Pages: 170 (plus notes)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Challenges: PoC, Middle East, Reading from my Shelves
FTC Disclosure: I received this book as a gift from one of my blogging Secret Santas
Summary (from the inside flap): A modern literary masterpiece, Women Without Men creates an evocative and powerfully drawn allegory of life in contemporary Iran. Internationally acclaimed writer Shahrnush Parsipur follows the interwoven destinies of five women--including a prostitute, a wealthy middle-aged housewife, and a schoolteacher--as they arrive, by many different paths, to live in a garden on the outskirts of Tehran. Drawing on elements of Islamic mysticism and recent Iranian history, Women Without Men depicts women escaping the narrow precincts of family and society, only to face daunting new challenges.

Shortly after the novel's 1989 publication, Parispur was arrested and jailed for her frank and defiant portrayal of women's sexuality. Though still banned in Iran, this national bestseller has been translated by award-winning artist Shirin Neshat.

Review: I don't think I get this book, but I am not sure if it's me or the book. The author is supposedly amazing, the book got her jailed (so it must be good, right?), the translator is award-winning. That leaves the blame on me. Bummer.

Let me do the good first. I can see why Iranian officials, wanting to control their society, would feel the need to "take care of" the author. This story does not mince the words or actions of the characters; they are blunt about how they feel about one another, about society, and about their sexuality. The story lines of the five women include back stabbing, an honor killing, and more.

Now the part I don't get. As I read the stories of these five characters I felt as if the women mistreated one another as badly as the men and society did. Maybe that's a point the author is trying to make. I think the main problem for me is the mysticism; it's something I am not very good at. One woman becomes a tree and plants herself, another dies and comes back to life, a third gives birth to a lily that lives in a pond.

I am sure that I am not doing justice to this book. If the reader has a better hold on mysticism and allegories, then this is the book for them. But I am a reader who likes more straightforward books, characters and stories.

My favorite part of the book was actually the Afterward (which is about 40 pages long) since it gives insight into the author's life, her experiences with arrest, torture, jail time, and exile (she lives in the US now) and the banning of all her books in Iran. The Afterward also gives some Iranian history and a look into the lives of women in Iran, which is interesting. Perhaps this should have been a preface....

Geography Connection:

We have a few Iranian students at our school and it is always interesting to talk to them about why they are in the US, how long they've been here, do they go home ever, etc. I have never been to Iran and am not sure how I would do if I did go. I included the photo of the city of Tehran because I always think it's good for people to see that cities all over the world look similar to each other and how cool is it to see the Iranian map in Farsi! Have any of you ever traveled to Iran? Click to see my updated Google Map.


Athira said...

Allegories? Nah, can't stand it. Truth is I can't understand. There are so many books I give up on because of the allegories. I can handle a few similes/metaphors, a few poetic sentences, but if sentences are anything like the one you wrote about plant and trees and lilies, count me out. This book does sound amazing though.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Aths--Thank goodness I am not alone. It always makes me feel so... lacking.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Hmmm... thanks for this review Helen - I have read books like this before... they can leave me wanting.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Sheila--Wanting is a good word to use for this. I just don't like it when I read a book that I know is supposed to be so good, but just doesn't work for me

Julie said...

Arg .. I tend to have the same problem with some "critically acclaimed" books .. I still want my books to follow a rather straight line and I don't want to be all transcendental to "get" them. (Life of Pi and If On A Winter's Night a Traveler both come to mind) - I couldn't even finish If on a Winter's Night, and I tried 3 times.