Down the Caspian Drain
By Bill Kohlhaase
“There’s such a thing as too much hope,” the character known only as The Tango Dancer tells Yass, the little girl who narrates Gina B. Nahai’s fourth novel, Caspian Rain. In this simple sentence she cuts to the chase of what is both enthralling and frustrating about Nahai’s tale of upward mobility in the Jewish community of pre-Islamic Revolution Iran. Her characters, only some of whom actually have names (the rest being known as The Seamstress, The Unmarried Sister, and other such handles), all suffer from too much or too little hope, but either way they lack possibility. Those on the “half-empty” side of the equation see little point in struggling to change their situation, while those on the other side strive without result—usually destroying themselves in the process.
Back then, in that place, you were what you were born as, and nothing—not marriage, not education, not change of address or even name—could truly alter that. Luck, good or bad, was even something that ran in families and Nahai, who herself was born in Iran and emigrated before the Revolution when she was 13, captures this sense of inescapability well, painfully detailing the plight of Yaas, her narrator, who is the unfortunate outcome of a marriage of social unequal, and of her mother, Bahar, who achieves one goal (marrying up) only to find that achievement becomes her doom.
Both are characters whose optimism is slowly chipped away by circumstance and by the indifference of Omid—the father in this family unit— who is himself trapped a hairsbreadth from happiness by the circumstances of birth. Nahai says of Iranians, “we did not believe, as Westerners seem to do, that we could transcend our natural disadvantages, or overcome man-made obstacles, or escape our past,” and this lack of self-pity, this acceptance of fate shines through in Caspian Rain’s cast of unique and well-drawn characters.
The book is one of several written by Iranian-born women this year, and despite the remarkable sense of place that Nahai, now a professor of Creative Writing at USC, develops throughout the book, it suffers somewhat from slow pacing and prose that feels a trifle self-admiring (both probably a product of a layout made up of many short sections—one or two pages each, or even as small as a single paragraph—that seem to say, “Stop! Ponder this phrase!”) and ends just as the characters are getting ready to do something interesting.
Perhaps that was a conscious choice, however, as it acts as the ultimate illustration of the plight of her characters—hope of something better, without the possibility of anything good coming of it.
Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai, MacAdam Cage, 298 pages, hardback $25