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    A Complicated Debut

    Laleh Khadivi’s debut novel, “The Age of Orphans,” is a strange and difficult read. I say this with the utmost respect to an author who is both ruthless and daring in her description of the Kurdish land.

    As a whole, the novel paints a grim picture that is both culturally and politically charged and manages to entice the reader into a dark, unforgiving land that gives rise to the orphan, Reza Pejman Khourdi.

    In the tradition of such novels as “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, this one follows the tale of the central character from his devastating beginnings to a somewhat humbling end. In a lot of ways, it is harsher and more pronounced, and surprisingly so, considering it comes from a female author.

    Khadivi narrates the tale of Reza, who loathes his Kurdish origins out of self-preservation. His young blood is driven by the horrific acts against the Kurds, which compel him to join the military ranks. At Kermanshah, where he is finally assigned, he oversees the Kurdish people as they assimilate into Iran, vainly craving independence. Meena, his Iranian wife, fuels his inner turmoil over Kurdish independence and Iranian assimilation, even as this leads to an unanticipated end.

    One of the novel’s charms is its historical quality. Even as Khadivi maintains a constant narration, she relates the history of the Kurdish land, a place that has seen more owners than most others. As Reza is urinating, Khadivi tells us in one rich sentence:

    “The boy pees through the slats of wood and takes water from the cask as the medley of men and burdened beasts moves atop the arid earth that never belonged to anyone after the Parthians (once) and the Sassanids (once) and the Mongols (once) and the Turks (just then) and the Russians (now and then) and the shah (soon), and so the Kurdish clan moves on, to own whatever piece of land they step on or roll over or smash for just that single moment of impact and no longer.”

    This technique on its own doesn’t always work for Khadivi. She throws a lot of information on one page, while the next ten may not even reveal much. Furthermore, she ungracefully uses orotund phrases infused among successive “and”s with no commas at all. Thankfully, this zealous locution only spans the first section of the novel.

    When looked at in sections, the novel does not always maintain the same tone. But as a whole, it has the unpredictability of the author and the place that Khadivi is narrating about. Hence, even as the flow appears inconsistent, it manages to weave a dynamic narration that captures the life of an orphan from all aspects.

    The one caveat of the novel is that it doesn’t soften the reader’s journey early on. When I said earlier that the novel is a difficult and strange read, I meant to use that to describe not just the jarring content, but also the jarring narration, which is minimal at best. We do not learn the central character’s name or age until several pages into the book. If the first section is meant to serve as the introduction to this novel in parts, it does so both uncharacteristically and ineffectively.

    However, even as we struggle to read more about this unnamed character, it’s hard not to feel the agony of a young boy being circumcised as he longs for his mother’s milk. Although syntactically difficult to read, Khadivi’s descriptions are crafty in the first fifth. It is perhaps this ability of the author to stir within us a sense of empathy while narrating a foreign tale that is her genius. This is also why even though you might be tempted to put down the book in the first few pages, I encourage you to read on as it is rare to experience empathy for something so unimaginable.

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