The Girl from the Garden

Written by Parnaz Foroutan
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In present-day Los Angeles, Mahboubeh, an elderly woman, sits in her picturesque garden and, while looking through photographs, recollects her family’s lives in the Iranian cities of Kermanshah and Tehran. Born into a wealthy Persian Jewish family in the early 20th century, and the only surviving daughter, Mahboubeh had left Tehran in 1977, “before the students took to the streets.” However, her family’s downfall was mainly due to her Uncle Asher’s decision to remarry a woman his cousin had divorced. Asher, the head of the family, was led to that fateful decision because his young wife, Rakhel, was unable to conceive, which at that time was the measure of a woman’s worth. Rakhel grew jealous and vindictive, taking strong measures to protect herself and her prestige within the family. Through Mahboubeh’s memories and flashbacks we learn of their complex family chronicle and malicious interactions, particularly between the brothers and their wives.

Parnaz Foroutan, an LA resident and PEN USA’s Emerging Voices award winner, has adroitly constructed this candid narrative that, as she acknowledges, is inspired by events in her own family’s history. It provides a fascinating look at the lives of Iranian Jewish families, a minority which, years ago, had lived and prospered successfully alongside the Muslim majority. The folklore, religious traditions, and customs of old Jewish Iranians are presented insightfully. The storyline requires careful construing due to its frequent flashbacks and the reminiscences used to depict this tale of family feuds, sacrifices and betrayals. Furthermore, Foroutan’s poetic writing style does take a while to get used to, but it subsequently becomes a pleasurable reading experience. Highly recommended.