by Dorit Rabinyan
George Braziller, Inc., $22.50
Flora is a cursed woman. At 15, the once beautiful girl already has been married to a dishonest, itinerant cloth-salesman who “left her a baby in her belly and lice in her hair.” The gossip in her Persian village holds that she suffers because she lost her virginity and became pregnant on a “cursed night of a lunar eclipse, when even hens lay rotten blood-red eggs.”
Her mother, a woman overwhelmed by the intricate superstitions of her Iranian Jewish culture, advises her to pee on a hen’s egg that has been laid at dawn, “then break the pissed-on egg under a blossoming tree” in order to make her wayward husband return. The women of the village tell her to yawn frequently to place a curse on his head.
In this first novel, set in a Jewish village in turn-of-the-century Iran, 25-year old Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan follows the romantic dreams of pampered, self-indulgent Flora and her correspondingly self-effacing orphaned cousin Nazie. Waiting impatiently for her own childbearing years to begin, 11-year-old Nazie watches as her cousin’s overflowing sexuality—which once infected the neighborhood with jealousy, desire and anger—becomes the source of her own undoing.
Rabinyan apparently draws on the rich folklore of her own Persian background to turn the standard plot of a woman spurned into a unique novel that walks the line between sinister fairy tale and stark reality. The writer’s biggest tool in this balancing act is intensely physical imagery.
“Shahin,” Rabinyan writes about Hora’s missing husband, “did not come back to see Flora’s legs thickening, the veins in her thighs swelling, and the purple blood vessels writhing like snakes and busting like bubbles on her calves. Her eyelids also swelled and grew heavy from crying. She gouged mourning scratches in her cheeks, and her hair fell out in clumps.”
This passage is typical of Rabinyan’s wonderfully saturated prose. When you put the book down, however, you also may feel the need to clean the chick pea grime out of your fingernails and the bugs out of your kitchen.