When Ari Siletz offered me the opportunity of reading and writing a review for Jasmin Darznik’s first memoir, The Good Daughter, A memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, I didn’t hesitate. I knew Jasmin’s work and expected her book to be an entertaining read. Of course her PhD in English literature from Princeton was another strong argument to set this memoir apart, in the pile of the Iranian memoirs in the market.
A simple look at the book-cover of The Good Daughter reveals that, unlike most of the other books in this genre, these memories don’t belong to the author but to her mother’s. This distance between the writer and the protagonist adds an element of fiction to the narration, which makes the book closer to a fictionalized memoir than a classic memoir which is only about the author's own memories, or at least this was my expectation.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I should congratulate Jasmin for her lovely way of praising her mother’s life. Extremely well-researched and written in an impeccable prose, this book shows Jasmin’s extra attention to details and descriptions, which in each scene it gives readers clear images of what they are looking at.
The Good Daughter is a fun and fast read about the Iranian women’s misery during most part of the 20th century. Did you notice something paradoxical in the preceding sentence? If you did, then you have got the core of my criticism of the book. But before talking about its problems, let’s first take a look at its strengths.
Darznik’s starts her narrative in a spectacular way; shortly after her father’s passing, Jasmin, who is in her twenties, discovers an old picture of her mother as a young bride, but the groom sitting next to her mother is a total stranger. This is the main incident which set the story in motion and drives the author to find out more about her mother’s past. In spite of her mother’s initial refusal, Jasmin receives a first series of tapes in which her mother has revealed her secrets.
After this brilliant opening scene, the next chapters will cover the history of this family throughout several decades.
First, we flashback to the beginning of the 20th century and meet Kobra and Sohrab, the author’s grandparents. Next, Lili, Jasmin’s mother, becomes the story’s main character; she goes through a marriage at 13, a miscarriage, childbirth, physical abuse, and divorce while still being a teenager. She also has to give up on her rights as a mother and to leave her daughter, Sara, to her ex-husband, Kazem. In the later chapters, we learn about Lili’s trip abroad to study, her second marriage to Johann, coming back to Iran for a few years before leaving it as the revolution starts (leaving Sara behind) and finally getting settled in the Bay Area, USA. From this point on, we read the author’s own memories from that same period, which I found the best written scenes of the book. I hope Jasmin would write a follow-up to this memoir, perhaps a second book about her mother’s efforts to find Sara and their reunion.
One of the main lessons I learned by reading this story was that no matter how hard the Pahlavis tried to bring about change, they were destined to fail. The society’s deep Islamic roots had made it impossible for their efforts to transform the archaic mind of the average Iranian man. Sohrab and Kazem might appear westernized and progressive, but their actions show that they're no different from the fanatic Iranian men who look at women as object and would consider the polygamy as his god-given right.
As I said, I enjoyed most of the opening chapter and the last few chapters, told in a close first person, written beautifully, but I had a few problems while reading the chapters in between. My first criticism of the book is its editing; there are too many anecdotes and unimportant characters, which could have been cut off from the final draft. I understand that the author is trying to remain truthful to her mother by preserving every little memory from those tapes, but in many of these stories not only they do not play an important role in the main narrative, but also they are predictable, so they left a feeling of “déjà-vu” in my mind. At some point, I wondered whether this feeling had to do with my own familiarity with similar tales, as I have also been aware of my own mother and grandmother's struggle to have a voice; or maybe I had read them in another Iranian memoir. It is true that Lili’s dark past is shared by so many, and I understand that sometimes the same story should be told and retold, but as a simple reader, I hoped to be surprised, shocked and stabbed, as Kafka says, while reading this familiar story as if I was reading it for the first time.
My other criticism is lack of attitude in Lili’s character. The story is told in a distant voice, without over-dramatization, which reduces the efficiency of the narration. There is a large amount of attention given to describing cultural elements, such as food, clothes, rituals and routines, but the same attention has not been given to show Lili’s state of mind, thoughts, or feelings. Lili is portrayed as a character that does not react the normal way, as we expect, as if she has been numbed by the chain of miseries in her life. Or, as if the average Iranian woman of that period was mostly fatalist who considered these unjust treatments as their destiny. Even though I can see that through her actions Lili is struggling to change her life, but this obvious lack of emotion was too disturbing. I would have loved to know more about Lili’s deep feelings and pain. Sometimes Lili acted almost like a dead fish, while being abused, and it was hard to understand why.
As the first chapter and the last ones were enough proof that Jasmin Darznik knows how to depict her characters’ emotions, knows how to grab her reader, and how to move them, so I could only conclude that she should have made a conscious choice of showing Lili as a numb character. This lack of attitude could be part of the author’s effort to stay objective regarding the miserable situation of women in Iran, but I think that the story could have had a stronger impact on the reader if Lili hadn’t hidden her pain.
This book is an elegant and memorable way that the author has chosen to show her love and devotion to her mother, and also for her country of birth. It is clear that Jasmin Darznik has conducted an impressive amount of research to create a believable image of Iran during the past century, and she is very successful in the depiction of an Iran that many don’t know. This book, I am sure, will be a great success, especially among the non-Iranians, as it creates a believable universe, and as an Iranian reader I feel this urge to clean up my own acts and to think thoroughly about what I call our nationalistic nostalgia and to distinguish the good from the bad, the shameful traditions from the genuine gestures of kindness.
Even though “Good Daughter” was the surname of Sara, Lili’s abandoned child, but I personally think that Jasmin is the real “good daughter”.
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