The Woman Who Read Too Much by Bahíyyih Nakhjavání: A review

The Woman Who Read Too Much: A NovelThe Woman Who Read Too Much: A Novel by Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A woman should know her place."
- the grand Mullah, uncle/father-in-law of the poetess of Qazvin
This is a story about a woman who most definitely did not know her place, or rather, she rejected the "place" that her society assigned to her. The story is based on a real woman, Tahirih Qurratu'l-Ayn, the poetess of Qazvin, who lived and died in the mid 19th century in Persia, during the time of the Qajar dynasty.

The poetess was the daughter of a Mullah who took the unusual step of defying the strictures of his society and his religion by teaching his daughter to read and to think in philosophical terms. Literacy was something that was denied to Persian women, so this was a revolutionary act.

The poetess was beautiful and intelligent, possessed of a first rate mind, and she took to learning as a duckling takes to water. She learned not only to read but also to write, something that was completely unheard of in her day, and she ended up writing history as well as reading it.

Her learning led the poetess to refuse to accept traditional patriarchal values. Moreover, she was a pioneering woman who also taught other women to read. Although she married her cousin, the son of the grand Mullah, and produced four children with him, she continued to challenge religious orthodoxy. She dared to assume theological leadership herself and espoused independent thought. She rejected Sharia law. She scandalized men by removing her veil in front of them. That's when her troubles seriously started.

When her uncle/father-in-law was attacked while he was at prayer in the mosque and ultimately died of the wound to his throat, the poetess was blamed because she had prophesied about seeing him with his mouth filled with blood.

The religious authorities sought her arrest, but she and her maid escaped and traveled around the country, continuing to spread literacy, until she was at last captured and taken to the home of the Mayor of Tehran for imprisonment. Even there, she continued to find ways to reach out to other women, to influence them and to spread literacy. She remained a captive, along with her young daughter, for more than three years.

These were times of treachery and unspeakable violence in Persia. There seemed to be constant famine and much of the population was ever on the brink of starvation. The Shah's regime was cruelly tyrannical, marked by torture and executions without benefit of trial of those he considered his enemies. There was an attempt to assassinate him early in his rule and the regime's retaliation, masterminded by the Mother of the Shah, was indiscriminate, destroying the innocent along with the guilty.

The imprisoned poetess continued to give warnings and predictions of dire consequences for the regime's injustices. She seemed to predict the deaths of the Mayor, the Grand Vazir, and the Shah. The poetess, in fact, was not just a reader of literature, she was a reader of people and situations and circumstances. In the end, she foresaw her own death as well, but even in death, her words continued to echo and her poems continued to be passed on to others.

I became aware of this book through reading the glowing review of it that one of my blogger buddies, Judy of Keep the Wisdom, wrote. She loved the book, and, upon reading her review, I wanted to read the book and love it also. Sadly, I found that I could not like it as much as I was predisposed to.

The book is divided into four parts: the Book of the Mother (of the Shah); the Book of the Wife (of the Mayor); the Book of the Sister (of the Shah); and the Book of the Daughter (of the poetess). I very much enjoyed the last book, the Book of the Daughter, especially the poetry near the end, but I found the other three (and even this last one to some extent) to be written in very dense prose that was often murky to the point of being opaque for me. I found that I could not get a good sense of the characters.

Part of my problem, I think, was the author's choice to not give the characters names. She only identified them by their societal roles - Mother of Shah, Wife of Mayor, Poetess of Qazvin, etc. In the afterword, she explained that decision, but people are more than just their societal roles. They have identities and individualism beyond the boxes that we put them into and their names help to give them the dignity of those identities. Without names, the characters remained somewhat anonymous for me and it was more difficult to empathize with them.

It also seemed strange that there was no dialogue. There were occasional quotes from individuals, but the story was told in a third person passive voice, the outside observer, which made it seem a bit indirect and passionless for me.

Moreover, the writer did not label her story in time. I read for a considerable period before I finally figured out that the events occurred during the reign of Queen Victoria in England, which finally gave me a time reference. (If I had read the afterword first as my friend did, I would not have had that problem.)

But the writer jumped back and forth in time in the same chapter to describe events that occurred both late and early in the Shah's reign and with her meandering storyline, I found it very hard to keep up. The poetess of Qazvin's life was a fascinating story of an early feminist in an impossibly patriarchal society and I wanted to understand her. I just wish the story could have been told in a more straightforward fashion.

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  1. While I was reading your review, I was wondering myself about the time the book was set on. You are right about narration being a somewhat detached form of writing a story, but that seems to be the writing form of choice in countries outside the U.S.

    1. I don't think the third party narration strategy necessarily seems detached, but in this case, it certainly did.

  2. Thank you for the shout out link Dorothy! And kudos to you for attempting the read. Your problems with the book were similar to those of the people in my reading group. I have found that most times when I read translated literature, I must deal with different ways of telling stories than I am used to. If it is any consolation, I have found it becomes easier, because cultures have their own ways and styles and I have now come across those styles more than once, thus feeling more "at home" with them. I can't say how much I admire you for taking a chance on this novel.

    1. I wish I had remembered that you said you read the afterword first. I think it would have made a big difference to my reading experience. Perhaps the style of writing is a Persian/Iranian thing. I certainly don't find all translated works to be passive. Elena Ferrante springs readily to mind.

    2. Well Persia/Iran is not Italy.


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