Song of A Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik

song-of-a-captive-birdThis quiet novel, based on the life of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzhad, is the beautiful and sometimes harrowing story of a woman determined to live her own life and tell own stories, despite a world that continually blocks her way. It spans ~25 years, from the 1940s through the late 1960s, and it’s both a captivating story about one woman’s determined coming of age, as well as a broader history of Iranian life, culture, and politics in the time between the 1953 coup and the 1979 revolution.

Forugh Farrokhzhad, who died when she was only 32, was a trailblazing Iranian poet who dared to write about the things that mattered to her, and who refused to let her gender limit her expression. Bits of her poems are scattered throughout the novel, and they are all gorgeous, and made me want to seek out more of her work.

The novel itself read like an autobiography, and I was surprised by how perfectly this structure worked. It was captivating from beginning to end. At times it felt a bit meandering, presumably because, as far as I can tell (after reading the Author’s Note), Darznik stuck fairly closely to the broad strokes of Forugh’s life. It’s obviously fictionalized (very few of Forughs papers and records survived), but the structure of the book sticks to the structure of her life: her childhood, her unhappy arranged marriage, the time she spent imprisoned after having an affair and being thrown out by her husband, and her life afterward in Tehran, falling in love, finding her voice, and making her own life.

I loved Forugh’s character. She felt painfully real to me, and I also appreciated how much she changed throughout the novel. The eighteen-year old Forugh and the thirty-year old Forugh were two different women, and Darznik wrote beautifully about all the complexities of that change, the shift from girlhood to womanhood.

The whole book was beautifully sensory. I felt like I could taste, smell, and see each scene. It was evocative of the time and place and it was also internal. Forugh’s inner life was as interesting and complicated as the events unfolding around her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about feminist books (well, always), but especially since reading The Female Persuasion. Song of A Captive Bird felt like the opposite of that book: it was feminist without trying. There were big themes explored here–freedom and agency, the trauma caused by sexism, the ways in which how the world views women can get inside how women view themsleves, what it means to have a voice and use, the complexities of resistance. But those themes were just naturally there, because those were the things that Forugh dealt with in her life. It’s a character-driven novel, but it has a lot of big things to say about the world.

My only complaint was with the ending. True to life, the book ends with Forugh’s sudden death at the age of 32. If this book hadn’t been based on a real person, I would have thrown it acorss the room in frustration. The death is sudden and serves no purpose and felt completely gratuitous and random. I understand that this is what happened, but I’m not sure why Darznik chose to include it.

The novel is told in the first person, narrated by Forugh, and the fact that she dies, and then keeps narrating, threw me off. There was no magical realism. The fact that she was narrating from beyond the grave had nothing to do with the story. I think the narration was part of why her death threw me off–it just didn’t make sense, as the first person narration just kept going. It took me out of the story and lessened the emotional impact, as the ending felt rushed and strange, whereas the rest of the book was so lush, layered, and beautifully quiet.

I wish Darznik had ended the book just before Forugh’s death. The novel would have felt, to me, more complete. But I loved it anyway, and highly recommend it, especially for fans of historical fiction and strong, complex female characters.

 

 

 

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