Edition reviewed: Back Bay Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-06577-1. 368 pages
The Blood of Flowers is set in Iran in the 1620s, during the reign of Shah Abbas. All the characters are fictional (Shah Abbas himself gets a walk-on part).
The unnamed narrator of the novel is a girl of fifteen when her father dies, leaving her and her mother alone with no livelihood. Her wealthy uncle Gostaham, a successful carpet designer and manager of the Shah's carpet workshop in the magnificent city of Isfahan, takes them in as poor relations. His wife Gordiyeh resents their presence, and never misses an opportunity to remind them of their lowly status. The narrator chafes at being treated as a servant, and is eager to develop her talents as a carpet maker and designer under Gostaham's kindly tutelage, But her impetuous nature leads her into a series of rash decisions that threaten her and her mother's security, and even their lives. Can she survive, and has she learned enough from her mistakes to build a new life?
This is an elegant and deceptively simple story of a young woman's coming of age, set against the background of the flourishing carpet industry in 17th-century Isfahan. For me, the unusual setting was a key strength of the novel. I knew virtually nothing about it beforehand, and The Blood of Flowers does an excellent job of bringing Isfahan to bustling life. The food, clothing, climate, buildings, bath-houses, markets and bazaars are all described, together with techniques of carpet design and manufacture, social structure and customs. Yet the novel never feels weighed down by detail. I found the social structures and customs especially interesting. The narrator experiences life in a wealthy family home, in the slums inhabited by poor workers and servants, and even as a beggar on the streets, so the novel provides a wide-ranging view of life as lived by different social classes. It also explores social customs such as the sigheh (temporary marriage) and the segregation of women. Seven folk-tales or fables are interspersed with the main narrative, and while these were of variable success as stories in their own right and as counterpoint to the main narrative, they helped to create the impression of a rich culture with a long heritage. In this respect they reminded me of the rabbit folk-tales in Watership Down. The ones I thought worked best were the ones identified by the author as based on traditional Iranian tales.
The characters are attractively human, with a mixture of good and bad qualities. Gostaham is kindly, but under his wife's thumb. The narrator means well and is warm-hearted, but she is reckless, often thoughtless, and incapable of telling the difference between an inspired idea and a disastrous one. Even the unkind aunt Gordiyeh, who is capable of treating her poor relations cruelly, can be kind when she does not feel threatened.
The coming-of-age story, with its none-too-subtle messages about female empowerment, seemed to me to be trying a bit too hard to prove its modern relevance. Not knowing the first thing about 17th-century Iranian society, I have no idea whether the narrator's eventual fate is credible. To its credit, though, the novel presents her as exceptional, and shows plenty of other female characters in rather more conventional roles.
The writing style is clear and deceptively simple. I'd describe it as 'transparent', in the sense that I stopped noticing the words and felt as if I was looking through them and watching the characters getting on with their lives in their own world. In a way, it reminded me of traditional folk-tales. The novel is recounted entirely in first person by the narrator, who is never named. I often dislike first-person novels, but this one worked well, perhaps because the narrator seems to be more interested in the world and the people around her than on brooding over her own troubles.
I found the ending excessively abrupt, so much so that at first I thought there must be some pages missing. Having seen the narrator grow up and take control of her own life, I would have liked to know what she did with it, even if only in an epilogue. As it is, the novel finishes with a 'folk-tale' invented by the author (i.e., not one based on a traditional tale). I presume that it's a subtle metaphor for the narrator's fate, but even after reading it several times, I confess that it's too subtle for me.
There's a helpful Author's Note, and a question-and-answer session with the author, which explains some of the background to the story. A map would have been useful for readers who aren't familiar with the geography of Iran, though most of the story takes place within the city of Isfahan and the references to other places are mostly peripheral.
Elegant story about a young woman finding her way in life, which will also
painlessly teach you a lot about carpet making and 17th-century Iranian culture.