Refuge by Dina Nayeri

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Refuge by Dina Nayeri

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Anna Hollingsworth
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Summary: A story of a family in diaspora, Refuge cuts across countries and decades. It is a heartfelt depiction of what it is like to redefine oneself as a refugee and to navigate more-than-complex relationships in a thoroughly global context. Humane, tragic, and funny, Refuge has it all – a real tour de force of story telling.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: July 2017
Publisher: Riverhead
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0735219380

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Sinking boats in stormy seas, national borders boosted with barbed wire, and overcrowded shelters – the media's portrayal of seeking asylum focuses on the process in its darkest, most dangerous form. What happens after tumultuous journeys and temporary shelter is not news; and life after decades in the new country is rarely headline material either. But in Dina Nayeri's Refuge, it is the life after that takes centre stage.

Nayeri dishes up a story that crosses decades and continents but orbits around one point in time and place: eight-year-old Niloo leaves Iran – and with that, her father and careless childhood – to start afresh in Oklahoma with her mother and brother. Twenty-ish years later, we find her – now an academic Iranian-American expat – settling down in Amsterdam with her husband. But there is also her trusty backpack, stuffed with all imaginable necessities: a symbol of the emotional baggage of her past she is still, quite literally, carrying with her.

In Iran, her father Bahman is onto his third divorce when he unexpectedly ends up in state-sanctioned house arrest. Trapped in his home and suffering in the delirium of withdrawing from his opium habits, he has all the time to reflect on his life and the family he sent to America.

From these ingredients, Nayeri spins out a story of father and daughter; how their lives diverge, only to cross paths at a handful of reunions across the decades, where they take stock and reminisce a to meet each other a handful of times across decades to take stock of the present and to reminisce the past that no longer carries much similarity to the present.

Refuge is first and foremost a tale of a family in diaspora, set all over the atlas. Packing several countries in the present and flashbacks to family reunions in the past – with a healthy dose of political discourse thrown in for good measure – risks overcrowding the 300-something pages. But – just as the novel's diaspora family – it works, against all odds. Nayeri juggles the different stories with dexterity, and drops nothing. This clever balancing act also shines through the novel's many topics – substance abuse, refugee status, relationship crisis, right wing extremism – that Nayeri navigates without depriving the reader of all hope, despite their bleakness. Refuge is a rarity in the general 21st century ethos of multiple global crises in that it always offers a glimmer of hope and a promise of sofreh, no matter what the circumstances.

What is really striking about Refuge, though, is the depth of its characters. There is no black and white, and no one for the reader to anchor their sympathies to. There is Niloo who will strike a chord with her background of leaving home and being abandoned by her father, but who then grows to push away those nearest to her, in a seemingly heartless and self-centered way. Her husband challenges the reader to choose between liking his genuinely lovable characteristics and hating his cultural arrogance. And from the outset, Bahman attracts hatred for his self-indulgent pursuit of youth, yet throughout the novel, a more vulnerable core is exposed beneath all the selfishness. Nayeri is a master of casting her characters, and leaves the reader reconsidering their allegiances.

Humane, tragic, funny – there are many things packed into Refuge, just as in Niloo's backpack. And with all that, it is a real tour de force of narrating life.

If this book appeals to you, then you might also like to try A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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Buy Refuge by Dina Nayeri at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Refuge by Dina Nayeri at


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