Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde comes to the blog with a story that looks back on a life as the narrator’s own life is soon ending. Please read on for my review of
What We Owe
It’s always a curiosity to me those questions about regrets and ‘doing things differently’, and with this book, our narrator, Nahid has been diagnosed with cancer, and in her remaining time she is pondering her ‘what should I leave’ moments. Reliving her life in Iran, and subsequent immigration to find a new life in Sweden, she’s exploring her past, present and future impacts on her family and herself. As a “take her to heart” character – Nahid is difficult and closed off. A cynical woman not prone to long explanations of her past actions or her current emotions. Yet, none of her walls were built just because she was bored – they were built on the losses, gains, choices and indecisions made through her fifty odd years on the planet. In many respects, the opening sentence of this book is the single-most important clue to who she is. “I’ve always carried my death with me.” She’s not only carried it – but often wielded it as a weapon against fear and hopelessness, shouldered it as the onus of ‘differentness’ came to isolate her, used it as a crutch when receiving her diagnosis, and often had it to hand, a sort of friend that is constant.
It’s not truly just the stories from an Iranian revolutionary rebelling against the ‘new regime’ and it’s restrictions, losing friends, love and one’s belief in the ideologies once held so dear – when real world power grabs, betrayals, conflicts and back-room brokering for control come into play. With a distant yet intertwined difficult relationship with her mother, a place where anger was as easily shared as the air, but the emotions of loss, grief and regret are far more difficult to reach and appreciate. From believing so wholly in the potential that could be her country, only to find betrayal and a need to flee – fighting the fight with the man she loves from miles away – the loss incorporated in her retelling of choices made that were really no choice at all, the adjustments and strangeness, the fear of trying again after being so brutally betrayed once are clear in her retelling. Spare, almost stoic in the retelling, the prose here is sparse and pointed, each word creates a moment and builds on the next to show both the similarities and differences of Nahid’s personality, and give us some sort of context in which to begin to understand this woman. A complex miasma of culture, regrets and even anger at the near rootlessness that she feels as someone far from her homeland and close to her end – with few if any opportunities to change what was, or provide a path to what will be.
I found the story intriguing – more for the pictures of a life in both Iran – at the center of the revolution with terrors, choices, secrets and betrayals abounding, but also in the loss of the innocence at the heart of Nahid’s journey, and just how quickly that hopefulness was snuffed out – through loss, change, emigration and a sense of ‘remove’ from the places and people she thought she knew best. With spare prose and pointed, honestly bleak memories of her own behavior, Nahid brought the story of a life remembered into stark relief, never bowing from the hard moments, while trying to make sense of where she had been, and how – or if – it will make a difference in the end.
Title: What We Owe
Author: Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde
Genre: Assimilation, Contemporary Woman's Fiction, Family Saga, Refugee Stories, Setting: Iran
Published by: Mariner Books
Published on: 16 October, 2018
Source: Publisher Via Edelweiss
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Nahid has six months left to live. Or so the doctors say. But Nahid is not the type to trust anyone. She resents the cancer diagnosis she has been given and the doctor who has given it to her. Bubbling inside her is also resentment toward life as it turned out, and the fact that it will go on without her. She feels alone, alone with her illness and alone with her thoughts. She yearns yet fails to connect with her only daughter, Aram. As the rawness of death draws near, Nahid should want to protect Aram from pain. She knows she should. Yet what is a daughter but one born to share in her mother’s pain?
At fifty, Nahid is no stranger to death. As a Marxist revolutionary in eighties Iran, she saw loved ones killed in the street and was forced to flee to Sweden. She and her husband abandoned their roots to build a new life in a new country. They told themselves they did it for their newborn daughter, so she could live free. But now as she stands on the precipice facing death, Nahid understands that what you thought you escaped will never let you go. And without roots, can you ever truly be free?