Ms. Parsipur's life story is fascinating-- her writing career began shortly before the revolution in Iran, and what she has faced as a writer makes me feel grateful to live in a country where my only stumbling block is navigating the waters of the publishing industry. I know I will never be jailed or blacklisted in any meaningful sense of the word in my own country. I won't have to leave my home to write about the things that I would like to write about.
The book itself is a slim volume, translated by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet in 1998-- nine years after its initial publication in Persian. It follows the lives of five women, all of whom, as the title suggests, are without men, for one reason or another. One is a widow. Another is a schoolteacher. A third is a prostitute. There are men in the story, and some of them pair off over the course of the story, but they are largely uncoupled for the course of the book.
One of the things I liked about the book is that each chapter is very self-contained. While the chapters follow one another in progression, with the same characters, in chronological sequence so that they tell a story from beginning to end, each chapter could also stand on its own as a short story, and for most of the book, I had very much the feeling that I was reading a series of short stories that happened to fall in a pleasing and sensible sequence than that I was reading a novel. What I liked about this was that it was very easy for someone like me, who is a fairly slow reader, to read the entire book in digestible chunks. I also liked being able to think of each chapter as a self-contained entity and consider it as its own work, which isn't a feeling I often get from novels. I am not certain if the book was intended to be a series of short stories or a novel, but it can easily function as both.
I also enjoyed the overall feeling I got from the text. I don't know how much of it is the translation and how much of it is the original writing, but it feels very pure and sparse and matter-of-fact, without being completely void of description. There is also an element of magical realism to it that I really enjoyed, and I felt as if these more magical and inexplicable elements of the book are kept at a level where you can read them as fact or read them as metaphor, and the story works both ways. In some cases, you can also read the magical bits as being an expression of a character's psyche-- true for that character, perhaps, but not necessarily true for the others.
It was also interesting to read about the way the women viewed themselves, viewed other women, and thought they were perceived by men. I liked the fact that at different points in the story, the story is told through the limited perspective of each of the major characters, but we never see anything through the eyes of the male characters-- they are always perceived as a sort of outside force, or literary device. There is even one male character who pretty much a deus ex machina. The men come into the story and do things that are often inexplicable, and then exit the story. And each of the women has a different perspective on not only other women, but on men and the roles men play in their lives. Ms. Parsipur addresses a lot of issues important to women and the different ways different types of women perceive them-- love, sex, marriage, infidelity, widowhood, childbirth, virginity, and the roles acceptable for women to play in society. It made me think a lot about how many of these perspectives, while encoded as law in Iran, are still harbored to some extent in American beliefs-- just because we don't arrest or kill women for these things doesn't mean that a woman isn't judged or victimized for them. I am not saying that this is the same thing, by any means, but I think it made me feel like I need to be more aware of how I see women being portrayed in our own media and literature-- and in every day conversation.
Also, for any of those of you who are interested, katshakespeare is looking for submissions of book reviews for her online magazine, The Litterbox. She would prefer reviews of recently-released books, but older books that might be particularly timely to be re-considered are welcome as well. She is open to all genres!