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Book Review

A Story of Layered Oppression

MOONLIGHT ON THE AVENUE OF FAITH; by Gina B. Nahai; Harcourt Brace $24, 376 pages

April 20, 1999|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Banished from Iran at age 6 to a Catholic boarding school in Pasadena, Lili, the Jewish girl who narrates part of Gina B. Nahai's entrancing second novel, wonders why. Why did her mother, Roxanna the Angel, step out of a window on Tehran's Avenue of Faith one moonlit night and flyaway? Why did her father, brooding in a mansion being stripped of its valuables, then get rid of her?

We, too, inured to the conventions of Latin American magical realism, wonder why. Why should a story from the Middle East sound so much the same? Why must we have yet another woman soaring heavenward in defiance of gravity, and on the very first page? But Nahai ("Cry of the Peacock") answers our question soon enough, though Lili's have to wait for the end.

"Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" telescopes centuries' worth of cultural change into a few decades. It begins before World War II in Tehran's Jewish ghetto, a medieval place where legends and superstitions are facts of life.

In her own childhood, Roxanna dreams of flying over the Caspian Sea. The desert air around her grows damp, and feathers are left in her bed. Her mother knows what has happened: 'She knew . . . that the feathers in Roxanna's bed came from her dreams, that in them Roxanna was flying like a bird, or an angel, over a sea that was vast and limitless and that led her away from the tight borders of their ghetto. . . ."

The mother knows this because she, too, and generations of women before her, have longed to escape the double prison of the ghetto. It's bad enough that Iranian Muslims, like European Christians, use the Jews as scapegoats and periodically massacre them, but these women are also oppressed by their own culture. Their attempts to pursue their desires are viewed as crazy, evil, a hereditary strain of "bad luck."

It's to exorcise this strain that Roxanna's mother tries to kill her and then farms her out as a servant to Alexandra the Cat, a supposedly wealthy Russian emigre. Roxanna finds, however, that Alexandra's eccentric and independent lifestyle depends on the largess of a "shadow lover," a rich, married man who could abandon her at any time. God help her if she makes a mistake.

Those who transgress--this is the realism that goes with Nahai's magic--often do real harm to themselves and others. Another of Roxanna's sisters, Tala'at the Deceiver, carries on a scandalous affair with her husband's nephew. Alexandra's daughter by the "shadow lover," Mercedez, ruthlessly schemes to be a rich man's wife, not just his mistress. Roxanna's future mother-in-law, Fraulein Claude, dyes her hair blond and reinvents herself as a German to snare her rich husband.

Roxanna flies into a fairy-tale marriage to one of Tehran's merchant elite. But she has made a mistake--she loves her husband's father, not her husband--and the only way out seems to be to abandon Lili and flee. What awaits her is exile in Turkish whorehouses, menial jobs, poverty and sickness, but Roxanna considers this an acceptable price for freedom. Only when Miriam tracks her down--the remnants of the family have moved to Los Angeles after the Khomeini revolution--does she think: "Perhaps--perhaps--she had been wrong."

Answering this question means explaining herself to Lili, who has grown up angry and suicidal; it means coming to America, the "land of chances and choices," where people can put their mistakes behind them. Nahai describes their reunion in a voice that never loses its poise, that balances cynicism with hope, warmth with satire, the heavy ballast of life with the exhilaration of being borne aloft.

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