The Woman Who Read Too Much, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Redwood Press, 2015, 322 pp (originally published in France and Italy, 2007)
Summary from Goodreads: Gossip was rife in the capital about the poetess of Qazvin. Some claimed she had been arrested for masterminding the murder of the grand Mullah, her uncle. Others echoed her words, and passed her poems from hand to hand. Everyone spoke of her beauty, and her dazzling intelligence. But most alarming to the Shah and the court was how the poetess could read. As her warnings and predictions became prophecies fulfilled, about the assassination of the Shah, the hanging of the Mayor, and the murder of the Grand Vazir, many wondered whether she was not only reading history but writing it as well. Was she herself guilty of the crimes she was foretelling?
Because of its title, I was destined to read this novel. I am the woman who reads too much. But for the poetess of Qazvin, her excessive reading brought tragedy and an early death, while for me it is saving my sanity.
Let me say right off that this is an extremely challenging read. Its larger than life characters go by several names and titles each. It is set in mid 19th century Persia. It is told from four different points of view. The time sequence is a tangled and overlapping web. If I hadn't turned to the back of the book and read the author's Afterword first, something I rarely do, and then constantly referred to her "Chronology of Corpses" placed after the Afterword, I would have been as confused and frustrated as the rest of my reading group members were.
Because I used those two aids as much as I did, I was rewarded beyond my expectations. The poetess of Qazvin was most definitely a saint and though her ending was violent and grim, she did as much for women and mankind as most saints do. She was blessed to be born to a father who believed women should be taught to read and encouraged to write, in a time and culture when Persian women were meant to be kept illiterate.
Being a literate woman who studied the Islamic scriptures she was tireless in working to adapt Islamic practices to include rights for women. She was fearless and beautiful but little concerned for her own comfort or happiness or safety. She taught women of all classes to read and to think for themselves.
If one is to read and assimilate Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's extraordinary novel, one must set aside most of her reading habits and expectations and desire to see inside both the palaces and hovels of Iranian culture. In any culture, where women or races or religious beliefs or economic conditions enforce inequality and oppression while using violence to quell discontents, the victims of it develop coping strategies. This is true of the lowliest corpse washer, of the inhabitants of the palace harems, of the mother of the Shah.
The author has woven a tapestry of words and images to portray the many ways in which all of the above might play out. The reward for me in deciphering her art and intent was a deeper understanding of the drama that is our modern world or even perhaps that of humanity throughout all time.
By the end I felt something like enlightenment. I could see the big picture, the stakes, the opponents and the goals. It made me want to read more, to better understand myself and my fellow humans, and I felt very happy to be who I am. To me, that is what great literature should do.
(The Woman Who Read Too Much is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)