Crisscrossing through various decades and locations within and beyond Iran – including Khuzestan (where much of Iran’s oil is located), Tehran, Ahvas, and Abadan – Niloufar-Lily Soltani’s debut novel Zulaikha is at its heart a family mystery hidden within the grand sweep of political upheaval and the trials of the heart. The novel opens in 2007 when Zulaikha (pronounced Zuli-Ka) arrives at the airport in Tehran after spending time in Amsterdam, where her son Sohrab lives.
Immediately, she runs by chance into Kia, a man from her past, now a resident of Canada, who she has not seen in decades. It is obvious that theirs is a troubled history, although we are given scant details (to be revealed later), involving a mystery child and her missing brother, Hessam. Once she and Kia part ways with promises to stay in touch, Zulaikha is taken into custody for questioning. It turns out the Iranian authorities want to know more about this seemingly chance meeting with this man from her past.
There is a large cast of characters, 23 in all, many of whom are Zulaikha’s relatives and extended family, as well as neighbours and friends. Most influential in her life is the turbulent relationship with her mother Madineh, by whom Zulaikha often feels betrayed, most disturbingly when Zulaikha finds herself pregnant with her first child. There is the older brother Gholam, who estranges himself from the family early on and goes on to be a policeman, and the younger brother Hessam, whose mysterious disappearance during the war, as mentioned earlier, forms the novel’s core. This is the event that, in many ways, divides this family, but also later on brings them together.
Political events, such as the coup in the 50s that brought the Shah to power and the revolution in 1979 that deposed him and brought in an Islamic theocracy, are seamlessly interwoven with personal struggles of familial strife and romantic tribulations involving Zulaikha’s first husband Assef and her later friend and lover Abdul.
Also central to our titular protagonist’s troubles is the sinister Dr. Matlab, who, as a guard in the notorious Evin Prison, first encounters Zulaikha when she is imprisoned there, and years later as a Member of Parliament who helps secure Zulaikha’s release from Evin when she finds herself there a second time many years later, and who maintains a psychological hold on Zulaikha for her gain.
Soltani employs a standard third-person narration technique but always maintains Zulaikha’s point of view. It often feels like she is writing in the first person. This is chiefly achieved by using italics to quote Zulaikha’s thoughts. The effect conjures a unique intimacy that heightens the reader’s empathy for Zulaikha. Soltani also quotes freely from Iranian poetry throughout the novel and connects the reader to Iran’s history and her characters’ joys and sorrows through her connection to her native country’s culture. Most poignant is her use of a snippet of verse by the poet Sohrab Sepehri (after whom Zulaikha names her son by Assef):
If you come to me.
Come, but gently and delicately,
So, my thin glass of loneliness,
Never gets fractured.
That phrase, “thin glass of loneliness” is referred to several times and offers a concrete image of fragility that, against all odds, stays intact, as if by a miracle, against the opposing forces of this world. The poem’s lines seem to magically weave the novel’s epic themes of love, war, vengeance and mercy as if into a timeless tapestry. Readers of Niloufar-Lily Soltani’s intimate prose style will find themselves quickly captivated by the engaging tale she has to tell.
You can read an excerpt from Zulaikha here.
About the Author
Niloufar-Lily Soltani (Lily) is a literary and crime fiction writer and poet. Her poems have been published in magazines such as Strange Horizons and Dissident Voices. Zulaikha is Lily’s debut novel. She lives in Vancouver, BC.
- Publisher : Inanna Publications (Nov. 15 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 177133956X
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771339568
Steven Mayoff (he/him) was born in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada in 2001. His books include the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009), the novel Our Lady of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015), the poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat (Grey Borders Books, 2018) and the poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone (Guernica Editions, 2019) and the novel The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief (Radiant Press, 2023). As a lyricist, he has collaborated with composer Ted Dykstra on Dion a Rock Opera, which will receive its world premiere at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto in February 2024.