A bookish love story in Iran: The Stationery Shop

A bookish love story in Iran: The Stationery Shop
Book Club: In Marjan Kamali’s latest novel, the love of a lifetime is discovered and lost.
7 min read
21 August, 2019
Marjan Kamali's latest book is a powerful story of young lovers in Iran

"You might think that the world is complicated and full of lost souls, that people who've touched your life and disappeared will never be found, but in the end all of that can change. One shop, one glass of tea, and all of that can simply flip."

There are some stories you feel compelled to dive into the moment the book arrives in your life. I started reading The Stationary Shop the same day it arrived in my mail; it was simply impossible to resist a love story that begins in a stationery shop called The Stationery Shop.

With a story that is stunning like the book's cover, this is a novel that causes as much heartache as it allows one to see that we can be alright even if tragedy strikes in the most tender of places.

Marjan Kamali's latest book is a powerful story of young lovers in Iran confronting the mechanisms of adult authority and ill-fated love.

Marjan Kamali's latest book is a powerful story of young lovers in Iran confronting the mechanisms of adult authority and ill-fated love

The novel begins in 2013; Roya is in her seventies, married to Walter, an American man with a "penchant for logic" and his "ability to let reason trump all".

Decades before this, during one summer in Iran, Roya had fallen in love with a very different person: Bahman, the "boy who would change the world".

Over the course of the novel, after a brief introduction to a much older Roya leading a very different life, the story follows Roya and Bahman's initial meetings at the shop, the place where they first fall in love.

Through her portrayal of their love, Kamali captures what it feels like to lose yourself in another person completely: "They had owned a future and a fate, engaged in a country on the verge of a bold beginning. She had loved him with the force of a blast. It had been impossible to imagine a future in which she did not hear his voice every day."

Kamali establishes the premise of the story at the start of the book; here is a woman from Iran who is now "almost American", settled in a life with a reasonable American man. She has spent nearly five decades in America, but something has reconnected her to a past love, a past life.

So, after decades of having "squished that boy out of her mind," Roya is on her way to an appointment to meet "that boy" at the housing center for seniors. 

"I've been waiting," Bahman says to her. It is at this point that Roya remembers "that cruel, disillusioning summer from which she'd never fully recovered, she felt as if she were still seventeen."

The story progresses from here to the fateful summer that brought Roya and Bahman into each other's orbits. Reading about the young lovers and their intense hope for a life together is a little bittersweet knowing what their future holds.

Their love, which innocently blossoms in the aisles of the stationery shop, will never take the route that they so desire. And this is where the mystery that quietly veils the story takes root.

Fate plays an important role in The Stationery Shop; a Persian maxim that frequents the narrative is the idea of fate written with an invisible ink.

Roya's mother had taught her that "our fate is written on our foreheads when we're born. It can't be seen, can't be read, but it's there in invisible ink, and life follows fate. No matter what."

Perhaps it is this fate that intervenes and ceases Roya and Bahman's love story from reaching the ultimate union of marriage. Or are there other forces at play here? The story gradually unravels over the course of the summer that the two fall in love, and as their love develops, Bahman's complex family dynamics and his involvement in Iran's politics as a fervent youth also become clearer.

Kamali craftily and seamlessly captures the atmosphere of a country at the cusp of a revolution; it's a nation charged with the friction of change

Amid the variables is Badri, Bahman's mother with a complicated mental health battle, who believes her perfect son is intended for someone of a higher class and that he can do much better than a "bookish" girl like Roya.

Roya's sister Zari (an important secondary character) is also sceptical of their love, though it's not an intense disapproval like Badri's. Kamali's narrative is an intricate merger of a love story, an exploration of mental illness and the story of a country that is politically unsettled.

Kamali craftily and seamlessly captures the atmosphere of a country at the cusp of a revolution; it's a nation charged with the friction of change. The young and energetic host demonstrations on the streets, teenagers take propaganda material to distribute at school, and scattered all over Iranian society are people at odds with one another.

Roya's parents are quick to embrace the idea of a democratic Iran where girls receive the best education and opportunities; they want their daughters to become scientists and achieve what was previously not thought to be possible.

In a letter Bahman writes, "The young here these days need something to latch on to, something to believe in, and for that something to not be the Shah." Others, who support the Shah, are not happy with the Prime Minister and the changes he's bringing to Iran. 

What's notable about Kamali's writing is the letter-perfect representation of Iran's politics, without overwhelming the reader with details that distract attention from the love story at the heart of it all.

The novel is diligent in offering a view of Iran's politics of 1953 (a turning point in Iran's recent political history), but it's not strictly a historical fiction novel. Rather, it should be read as a coming of age story that captures how vastly different our life can turn out to be, no matter how much we plan the direction we want to take.

Perhaps this is, after all, a reflection of the nature of politics; we know what we want but we don't always get it. Does this make life cruel? Or does it simply speak to the nature of life as something as unpredictable as it is can be mundane. 

One particular aspect of the novel that's immensely enjoyable is the appearance of Persian food in the narrative; from descriptions of elaborate meals and how they're prepared, to the ingredients that are used by the characters – all of this enhances the sensory details in the story and adds to its atmosphere.

Iran's rich culture of food and dining is a source of comfort for Roya, especially once she moves to America where cooking Persian meals is how she stays connected to home, and also eventually builds a new life. There is something very endearing and intimate in the act of reading a scene in which one character is preparing a meal for another. 

Throughout the novel, The Stationery Shop is another source of comfort; it's a place enveloped in warmth. It's a safe space where lovers meet, where letters are hidden and where ideas are housed and discovered.

It becomes a place of refuge, for the characters and the reader who is observing them: "As the political division deepened that winter and hotheaded people engaged in debates and demonstrations, it was the perfect retreat of quiet and learning. It was a sanctuary of calm and quiet: never overlit, never loud." 

Marjan Kamali new novel is a treat for people who love getting lost in stationery shops; people who love the smell of paper and ink, who love the idea of a new notebook that has never been written in. It is in this comforting space of possibilities that Roya and Bahman's story begins and, perhaps, also ends.

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali was recently published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Marjan Kamali has also written Together Tea, a bestselling novel that was a Massachusetts Book Award Finalist. It has been translated to several languages and was also adapted for the stage.

Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.

Follow her on Instagram: @sumaiyya.books

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