Kimia Eslah is a feminist writer who lives in Ontario, and The Daughter Who Walked Away* is her debut novel. The book first introduces us to Taraneh Pourani living in East End Toronto with her husband and two young boys. It is morning and she is in bed with her husband Haseem, who is snoring beside her. She admonishes herself:
Taraneh is agitated because her husband took their two boys to visit Taraneh’s parents Reza and Mojegan, who live in a large home in Ajax, on Lake Ontario the day before. Taraneh hasn’t seen her parents in sixteen years, although they live only 40 minutes apart geographically. It has been sixteen years since Taraneh walked out of their lives for good, and the reasons for her drastic action takes some 300 articularly written pages to tell. It is a story of generations filled with mental abuse, cultural abuse, shame and alcoholism stretching back to her grandparent’s time in Tehran, pre-revolution.
As I was reading this book, it reminded me of Side by Side by Anita Kushwaha and how mental illness affects families and can tear them apart, especially when others deny there is any problem, or refuse to confront it so a healing process can begin. Typical is Mojegan’s reaction when she sees a book on Alcoholism in a bookstore. Her husband Reza drinks every night after work, and even more heavily at parties.
As Mojegan passed through the psychology section, a series of titles caught her eye under the label Alcoholism. He’s not an alcoholic, she challenged herself. Alcoholics do not have office jobs or own homes.
Despite herself, she pulled out a translated version of a book written by Marty Mann¹, an American author. Mojegan stared at Mann’s black and white photo on the jacket. The author sat upright at a large desk. She wore a conservative white collared
shirt and a black suit jacket. Her expression was somber. With a sense of urgency, Mojegan opened the book in the middle and began to read, “One of the most tragic effects of alcoholism is what it does to children who are far from…” Stop it! Mojegan scolded herself. She put the book back on the shelf, left the store emptyhanded, and returned to work at a brisk pace.
Reza is a functioning alcoholic. Amazingly, he never fails to provide for his family despite his addiction. Perhaps that is why Mojegan chooses to overlook it. Years later, their daughter Taraneh is given the same book to help her understand her father’s drinking and the consequences it has had on her. She shows it to her mother:
“Why are you reading this? Why did you bring this to me?” her mother scowled in disgust as she laid down the book with her index finger and thumb.
“It’s helped me a lot. It helps me understand why I have such a hard time with … things,” Taraneh looked at the book. Regretful, she wanted to return it to her bag immediately, but she didn’t dare reach out.
For two weeks, she had read and reread the book. Her counsellor had lent her many similar books but Taraneh could most relate to this one -—- Marty Mann Answers your Questions about Drinking and Alcoholism. Initially, Taraneh had been startled and upset by the book’s relevance to her life. It seemed that the book had been written about her family and her troubles. While the accounts in the book validated her experiences as a child of an alcoholic, they also stripped her experiences of their singularity. Taraneh was enraged to realize that alcoholism is not uncommon, that her father’s alcoholism had probably been evident to family friends, and that no one had bothered to help [italics mine]. No one had bothered to do something as simple as find a book. No one had bothered to reassure her that she wasn’t to blame for his tears or his tirades. Anger and grief followed the startling revelation that she was an innocent bystander who came into existence while a tsunami was in progress.
Ms. Eslah treats all her characters compassionately. They all have their own issues, whether they are culturally imposed ones (such as an arranged marriage at age nine), family secrets or denial of any problem, such previously mentioned. Taraneh naturally enough turns out to be a rebellious child (the family is now living in Toronto), but her parents are steadfast in claiming blamelessness for Taraneh’s behaviour.
Her mother shot back, “Did this counsellor say anything about you? About the problems you’ve caused? About your arrogance and your stubbornness?”
Mojegan continually blames Taraneh for the family’s dysfunction, ignoring the real causes. In a fit of rage, Taraneh declares: “There is nothing wrong with me!”
The end of the book brings us full circle back to Taraneh’s story, so the reader can perceive for themselves the end result of years of unresolved family issues. It’s easy enough for her parents to think it is the Western influence that has resulted in her present state but is that really the case?
Like another recent Roseway Publishing novel, Under the Bridge, The Daughter Who Walked Away is a socially significant novel that deserves to be read in a thoughtful way. Could we be facing similar issues in our family? Am I denying that I have a problem? Has our family’s history of dealing (or not dealing with) with issues affected me or my siblings? My children? My relationships?
I’m putting The Daughter Who Walked Away on the 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best First Novel.
*Note: this review was based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by the publisher. The Daughter Who Walked Away is due for release on November 2019.
¹Marty Mann. Marty Mann Answers Your Questions about Drinking and Alcoholism. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Jan. 1, 1970.