Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith

Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith
by Gina B. Nahai
Harcourt Brace & Company, $24

“It had begun, as tragedies often do, with a woman.” In Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, Gina Nahai weaves a vivid, magical tale that begins with one woman’s shocking act of liberation, fleeing a synagogue on Yom Kippur. Her story and that of her daughters and granddaughters is rooted in Tehran’s Jewish ghetto, where language, faith and history intertwine with the Muslim world. Nahai’s novel spans continents and decades: The Holocaust is seen through the lens of the Shah’s politics, the violence and chaos of the Islamic revolution, the forced flight of the Jews. Time is fluid, shifting from present-day Los Angeles to mid-century Iran, and back again.

Nahai, a new voice in a wave of Mizrahi women writers, writes with a strong sense of place, which is intimately described though three generations of women, Shusha, Roxanna and Lili, who must choose between their freedom as women, their identity as Iranians, and their faith as Jews. And they live with the knowledge that the escapist impulse of their runaway ancestor remains “in their blood.” Even as a child, Roxanna is unable to accept the confines of her life. “Shusha did not tell … what she knew so well: 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, that the wings and the sea air spilled over the edge of the night sometimes, skipping the line between desire and truth, and poured into Roxanna’s bed to speak of her longings.”

Years later, Roxanna unfolds those same wings to fly out of the Tehran night and out of the life of her five-year-old daughter, Lili. Sent off to a Catholic boarding school in Los Angeles, severed from her language, culture and religion, Lili wrestles with the legacy her mother has left her—the ability to choose her own fate, along with the losses that such a choice entails. These are women who are “not afraid of exile,” but whose very bodies swell with tears over the price of their freedom, and with the still greater cost of not attaining it at all.