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Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad

Life in Iran is good for Armenian Clarice Ayvazian. She lives comfortably in an oil company town, devoting her middle class life to her engineer husband, teenage son and young twin daughters. Her mother and sister, Alice, drop in from time to time during the course of the day, but are perfectly manageable for her (in small doses). However, when an elderly woman, her middle-aged son and his tween-age daughter move in across the road they bring turmoil in their wake and Clarice's perception of her happiness is torn apart.

Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: In this wonderfully humorous but touching novel about identity, set against an Iranian backdrop, Armenian-Iranian housewife and mother Clarice Ayvazian has everything she wants in life. Everything, that is, until slightly unusual neighbours move in and then nothing is the same again.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1851689255

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Everyone (and every event) is seen through the eyes of Clarice in a way that ensures she isn't just the lynch pin of the family but also that of the book. She is the one who, through a revealing, entertaining internal monologue, interprets her fussy mother, her pushy, comically (and sometimes poignantly) desperate spinster sister, her hidden pain on realising that her son doesn't need her as much as she needs him and her frustrations and worries about her politicised husband. Indeed, this novel is populated with characters that are sad, fun, determined, lost... They're basically humanity but humanity so well described that even the characters that aren't, perhaps, sympathetic are (thanks to the author) understandable both in terms of who they are and why they're like that. Even when feeling for them becomes difficult the writing is of such a high calibre that we can still feel for their situation; that's quite a difficult level of engagement to engender.

Zoya Pirzad, herself an Armenian Iranian, packs a smorgasbord of cultural and national flavour into each page. It was intriguing to discover that Armenian families, like the Ayvazians, live almost like a small nation within Iran, served by their own schools, churches (a branch of Catholicism) and even their own newspaper. They also have long memories and continue to celebrate and commemorate their culture. The example the author uses in the novel (the commemoration of the 1915 Armenian massacre) is just one of the rich background and history they carry around with them. For this is a culture where nicknames like 'Blabbermouth' follow families across generations and, indeed, across mainland Europe in a way that's almost claustrophobically community-centred. This is a world where modern courting goes on in the homes of parents whose own marriages were probably arranged. A world where Clarice's mother's generation judges a woman's worth by how clean her home is and the quality of her cooking. There also lurk secrets with connotations that are unspoken but widely understood, like the secret of the village community of Ramagerd. Other themes pervade Clarice's world that aren't just the reserve of Iranian Armenians though. For as well as being a well-written story, at the centre of Things We Left Unsaid is the question of identity.

You don't need a degree in literature to see the undercurrents. Clarice is looking for the same thing as any person subsumed by others' needs: herself. Her husband, Anoush, meanwhile seeks a new identity for Iran through politics. The mother-pecked Emile across the road just wants to love and be loved, whereas his mother so fears losing all that is safe and familiar that she... you'll see. As for Emile's daughter, Emily... well... enough said.

However, it's not just the people who are searching. As it rushes towards the Islamic revolution (of which these characters are still unaware) Iran itself is struggling. In the novel we meet women activists seeking equal rights and, knowing what we now know about the storm ahead (so well analogised by a plague of locusts); it makes you wonder what's happened to them since. I for one would love a post-revolution sequel showing how these characters that are grafted so well into the readers' imagination manage.

In the end Things We Left Unsaid is as easy to sum up as it is to read. It's a slice of life in an alien culture, peopled by those we see every day, shared by a writer whose ability we don't. So a definite thank you to Oneworld Publications for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.

If you would like to read more about Iran, perhaps you'd like to try Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour or, a more direct account of life after the Islamic Revolution, perhaps The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi.

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