Song of a Captive Bird
One of my favorite things about historical fiction is its ability to teach me about people and places I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. I’m not a huge poetry fan, so the work of Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzhad wasn’t even on my radar until I read the synopsis for Song of a Captive Bird, the début novel from Jasmin Darznik that focuses on Forugh’s life.
Before I go any further, I want to caution potential readers not to start reading this novel expecting a great deal of historical accuracy. The author admits to taking a number of liberties in the telling of the story, as it seems that Forugh’s family destroyed many of her personal papers, making it difficult for Ms. Darznik to do extensive research into her life. As a result, she is forced to rely on interviews and her own knowledge of Iranian culture- as well as her imagination – in order to craft a readable story. I’m not always a stickler for historical accuracy, but I did find a few things within these pages that didn’t quite feel authentic.
All of her life, Forugh Farrokhzhad has chafed against the restrictions placed on her by her family and their culture. Despite her above average intelligence, she is forced to abandon her education after completing the eighth grade. Fortunately, her father champions her desire to continue learning, albeit from the confines of her family home, so Forugh spends her days reading anything she can get her hands on. She soon discovers that she has a way with words, and begins to write poetry. At first, her family seems pleased by her accomplishment, but, as Forugh grows into an increasingly unhappy young woman, her poetry takes on a revolutionary feel that frightens her father.
In an attempt to curb what he sees as Forugh’s willful nature, her father marries her off to a cousin who lives in another part of the country. Forugh is dismayed by the remoteness of her new home, and longs for the hustle and bustle of Iran’s capital city. Plus, she’s not at all fond of her new husband, who sees her as nothing more than another piece of property he owns. Her new mother-in-law is cold and domineering, and Forugh begins to fear she’ll never adjust to life as a married woman. As a result, she turns inward, finding comfort only in her poetry.
As the years pass and Forugh’s life becomes ever harder, her poetry becomes ever more scandalous. It contains all of Forugh’s hidden longings, things proper Iranian women simply wouldn’t dream of writing. Soon, Forugh’s own reputation, as well as that of her family, is tarnished beyond repair.
Ms. Darznik’s writing is quite lyrical and evocative. I found myself swept away to a time and a place I know little about, and as I said before, I love it when an author is able to do that for me. I learned so much about Iranian culture, and I definitely plan to read more books set in the Middle East.
My one real quibble with the author’s writing style has to do with foreshadowing. She would give away a key plot point early on, and then circle back to explain it more fully later on in the novel. This gave the story a somewhat choppy feel, and I would have preferred that Ms. Darznik had stuck to a more linear style of storytelling.
Excerpts of Forugh’s poetry are sprinkled throughout the novel, but while this might appeal to some readers, I have to say that I found it quite distracting; I’d be nicely immersed in the plot, only to be pulled out of the story by a few lines of poetry. I imagine I might have felt differently if poetry was something I happened to enjoy, but since it isn’t, I was tempted to skim through it just so I could return to the meat of the novel.
Song of a Captive Bird will most likely appeal to readers who are drawn to novels with a definite feminist bent, and who won’t be bothered by a certain amount of creative license being taken throughout. Despite the few flaws I’ve mentioned, I enjoyed learning about Forugh’s struggles and triumphs, and I’m eager to see what Ms. Darznik decides to do next.