Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

I picked up this book at the grocery store because the beautiful jacaranda tree on the cover caught my eye - in this case you could judge the book by the cover as the story was also beautifully written.  The author herself was born in Iran's Evin prison while her mother was imprisoned there in 1983.  She tells a fictional, but personally based, story of several children born to imprisoned mothers - as well as the stories of their parents, grandparents and adult selves.  Fortunately there is a guide to the characters at the start of the book as I had to refer to it constantly to remind myself of the relationships between the various players.

The action starts in 1983 in Evin Prison.  Azar is in labour, blindfolded, in the back of a prison van en route to a hospital to give birth.  Despite cruel treatment she eventually gives birth in a hospital with the help of a sympathetic doctor who is unable to convince the prison guards to let her internal tearing heal in the hospital.  So she is given her baby, Neda, and returned to the prison.  The new baby draws together the ragtag group of women, many of whom did not previously get along as they take turns holding the baby and making her clothing from their discarded head coverings.  After several weeks the baby is torn from Azar's arms and sent to be raised by her parents.

We next meet Leila in 1987.  She is raising three children belonging to her two sisters who are imprisoned in Evin.  One, Omid, was left sitting at the kitchen table while his parents were arrested.  The younger two girls were both born days apart, in separate cells, in the prison.  Leila and her parents have put their whole lives on hold to raise these children even though Leila would rather follow her first love and emigrate.  It is interesting to read how these and other children we meet get very attached to their grandmothers and aunts and are very traumatized when their mothers return to claim them.  And these are the lucky ones whose parents return.

We later meet Amir who is imprisoned in Evin from 1983-1988.  While there his wife, who is free, gives birth to Sheida.  He is given two opportunities to see the baby - once shortly after her birth and once when she is three years old - before he is hung as part of a huge prison purge near the end of the Iran-Iraq war.  The second time he has fashioned a bracelet of date pits for his daughter which he sneaks into her clothes.  However, Sheida is not told her father's true story until she reaches adulthood and only then does she see the bracelet that for many months kept her father's hopes alive.

Most of the rest of the book takes place in the 2000s where we see how life has treated these children of prisoners.  Some have emigrated, others are active in the more current Iranian demonstrations, but all are scarred.  The stories are so interesting to read, and the strength of character of all the different generations, is clear.

I highly recommend this book.

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