The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, Booker International Prize 2020. (This could be my favorite, and we’ve only just begun.)

To deny or forget her past, she read and wrote, submerging herself in the meaning of myth…

It is hard for me to imagine that I will find a book from the Booker International Prize long list which I find to be more powerful than this one, and this is only the second that I have read from a stack of thirteen.

It isn’t the theme I love, about the Islamic Revolution in 1988 in Iran. It isn’t the terror, or the fear, or the religion of Islam. It is the voice of the narrator, a young girl named Bahar, who died in 1979 when her home was set on fire by the Revolutionary Guards. She now floats above her family, a ghost with a pure and childlike perspective, who tells us what living during this time was really like.

Five thousand men and women, young and old, whose only crime had been their political or religious beliefs, were killed in the prison of Tehran, Karaj, Mashhad, and other cities.

Bahar’s mother refers to the Islamic Revolution as the Arab Invasion, whereupon the family fled to Razan, from Tehran, for safety. But, they are not safe there, either. Their son is taken, and their books are burned, along with the musical instruments which their father had lovingly made.

With the burning of Dad’s tars – which had been our ears, mind, and soul – then of me, and now the books, we had lost both our limbs and our voice…we understood that contrary to what Dad believed, culture, knowledge, and art retreat in the face of violence, the sword, and fire – and for years after remain barren and mute.”

Some of the events that occurred to her family are told as facts, as I have quoted above, but most of them are relayed in the form of magical realism. Gradually, we come to see how the revolution changed her family’s destiny, for one by one, the members of the family disappear.

Her mother steps into the garden one lovely day, and keeps walking. Her sister, Beeta transforms into a mermaid, and lives in the Caspian Sea.

Beeta transformed into an aquatic creature so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human.

Rather than seeming like utter fantasy, these events made perfect sense to me as I read. The magical realism is perhaps the only lens possible through which to endure the horror their lives had become. The other way, for this family, was through the power of books. For as much as an account of life in Iran, I found this novel to be an ode to literature. Literature must have been as threatening to the revolution as it was sustaining to the family; over and over accounts of burning books are told.

But, it is this quote from Beeta, now mermaid, that resonates so soundly with me: “In our world, nobody comes into life to stay forever, and our fish-like minds don’t allow us to think of the past.” For there is no comfort in reliving the past. There is only the courage required to move forward, changed though we may be.

About the author: Shokoofeh Azar moved to Australia as a political refugee in 2011. She is the author of essays, articles and children’s books, and is the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the entire length of the Silk Road. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, originally written in Persian, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize for Fiction in Australia and is her first novel to be translated into English.

The translator’s name has not been included here for reasons of safety and at the translator’s request.

(Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book to review.)