Tehran, 1953, before the coup. Iran is experiencing a brief spell of relative peace, although there are rumours of something terrible on the horizon. It’s against this backdrop that Roya – a bookish girl just out of high school – and Bahman – an ardent young political activist – fall in love. They are quickly engaged and look forward to a beautiful life together.
Then the coup happens and they are separated. After not turning up to meet her one day, Roya doesn’t see Bahman again. Devastated and in need of a change of scene, she accepts the opportunity to take up a scholarship in California, where she falls in love with Walter. However much her new life diverges from her old though, she never can forget her first love.
The Stationery Shop of Tehran follows the entire span of Roya’s adulthood: from her passionate young embraces with Bahman in Tehran, to her tender moments with Walter as an elderly lady in their cold New England home. It’s a sweeping love story – or rather, two sweeping love stories – but more than that, it’s the story of a woman determined to keep moving forward despite the various traumas that befall her. A story of hope and resilience; of accepting the past will always be a part of you, but that you don’t have to live in it.
This is the second novel from peripatetic author Marjan Kamali, who has lived in Turkey, Iran, Kenya, Germany and the US, where she is now situated. Her experience of moving between all of these different cultures lends her book a tangible authenticity; the descriptions of Roya adjusting to life in California after a diametrically opposed life in Iran have the feel of being written by someone who has lived that transition themselves. Kamali writes deftly on how strange it must be to make that adjustment, the mixture of homesickness and excitement of having a whole new world to explore. Her prose is so lush and vivid, we feel the cultural whiplash too.
Kamali only falters when she over-explains the ending. So much of the plot hinges on a letter that parts Roya and Bahman and the mystery of where it came from, yet as the novel progresses, the letter starts to matter less and less. Permit me the use of a cliché: it really is the journey that matters here and not the destination. It isn’t the sort of book you race through to find out the answer, but one where you enjoy accompanying the characters – and there are some great characters – through their lives. So when Kamali ends with an epilogue that explains just how the letter came into being, it is a touch disappointing. Some things should remain a mystery – we don’t get all the answers in life, so why should we in fiction?
Finale aside, The Stationery Shop of Tehran is a beautiful novel; honest, evocative and full of richly drawn scenes that you will remember for a long time to come.
The Stationery Shop of Tehran is published by Simon & Schuster UK on 28 November 2019