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Engrossing characters save Iranian-American author Gina Nahai’s overlong new novel

Nahai's motto seems to be: why say in one line what you can say in ten?
Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles.iStock
Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles.iStock

During the early hours of June 24, 2013, Raphael’s Son, a flashy, corrupt and much-hated Iranian émigré businessman, is murdered while sitting in his Aston Martin, just outside the gates of his $52- million, eight-bedroom mansion in one of the smartest neighbourhoods of Los Angeles.

Or maybe he isn’t.

Thus begins The Luminous Heart of Jonah S [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], the newest novel by the award-winning Iranian-American author Gina Nahai. It’s a sprawling and unlikely combination of Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez and Raymond Chandler, sweeping in the super-rich and the struggles of both Tehran and Los Angeles.

Thanks to an easy-to-read style and a page-turning plot, this odd concoction mostly works. There are also some fascinating cultural comparisons of Americans and Iranians and a bittersweet look back at pre-revolutionary Iran.

In one typical cross-cultural explanation, Nahai describes the Iranian concept of aabehroo: “It means making sure you do everything in compliance with society’s idea of what is right, that you live honourably and protect the sanctity of your family’s name and reputation … [But in the US] this land of perpetual hope and endless good fortune … there’s no awareness, perhaps no need, nor would there be any tolerance, of that kind of sacrifice.”

Unfortunately, Nahai goes on to repeat those thoughts for 13 more sentences and that’s typical of her biggest problem: the book desperately needs to prune its 400 pages by one-third.

Flashing back to 1950, Jonah S traces the generations of the Soleymans, a Jewish-Iranian family who built a fortune as fabric merchants. However, the heir, Raphael, is riddled with “insidious” intestinal worms that defy all medical treatments. Not only does he sleepwalk, but also at night “his heart glowed a pulsating blue-white colour that exposed all its veins and arteries”.

An older woman from “a family of palm readers and sorcerers and harem maids” emerges from nowhere to (depending on one’s viewpoint) care for Raphael or trap him into marriage. In any case, five years after Raphael dies and his younger brother, Aaron, evicts her, the woman known as either Raphael’s Wife or the Black B**** of Bushehr returns to Tehran with a boy that she claims is Raphael’s child.

No one believes her claims of marriage or of Raphael siring an heir, least of all the Soleymans. So, for the next 45 years, Raphael’s Wife and her son will unceasingly curse and seek revenge on the family, even as the Iranian Revolution does its own job of depriving them of home and wealth. When Raphael’s Wife lets loose her widow’s sigh – “a black wind that blew from the darkest corners of the universe to punish those who broke a widow’s heart” – a flood ravages the Soleymans’ property, and a jealous husband murders Aaron.

Eventually, the surviving Soleymans – Aaron’s widow Elizabeth and their daughter Angela – as well as Raphael’s Son join the bustling Iranian émigré community in Los Angeles. There, Raphael’s Son (as he is always called) will make so many enemies, through extortion and a Ponzi scheme that collapses during the Great Recession, that almost the entire city population are suspects in what may be his murder.

One of the novel’s strengths as well as weaknesses is its rich but overflowing universe of characters. There’s Elizabeth’s childhood friend, Hussein, obsessed with his invention of a heat-detecting radar; and John Vain, the overly generous, cowboy-booted restaurateur who falls in love with Elizabeth; and Jimmy Lorecchio, the “half-bald, grossly overweight, never-learnt-how-to-button-up-his-pants” union boss; and Manzel, the mute and devoted servant whom Elizabeth teaches to read; and Mojtaba, her son, who avidly joins the revolution and... . Within just the first 36 pages, 11 characters come and go with either detailed physical descriptions or back stories, or both.

Luckily, the characters are engrossing and the book rarely flags until the unnecessary final chapter, which is basically a long explanation of what has already been implied.

Nahai – a finalist for the prestigious Orange Prize – clearly knows her émigré setting in all its gradations. While she has fun slathering on elite-brand names and luxurious descriptions, she is also sympathetic to the struggles of people like Dr Raiis, who had been a lauded doctor in Tehran but now is reduced to “stacking boxes of fresh coriander and fenugreek” in a tiny California grocery store.

At one point, an American woman compliments Elizabeth’s expensive watch, a gift from Aaron. Elizabeth responds as Iranian ­mores demand, saying: “It’s not worthy of your excellence”, and offering the watch to the American. But the woman, not realising that she is supposed to refuse the purported gift, greedily takes the watch.

With just those eight paragraphs, Nahai says more about Iranians and Americans than in dozens of the book’s other pages.

Fran Hawthorne is a US-based ­author and journalist who specialises in covering business, finance and social policy.


Updated: October 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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