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The book begins at the very end. As the Shah of Persia celebrates 50 years of a tyrannical rule, he is shot to death in the shrine of his wife, and lands unceremoniously, head first into the lap of an old beggar woman. The fact that the king did stare at the beggar with something like recognition is glossed over as a banal detail. Whose name did he call out as he fell dead? Some swore he took his beloved’s name, others insisted it was his mother he called out too.But the old beggar insisted that the name he breathed as he fell into her lap was that of the poetess of Qazvin.
In The Woman Who Read Too Much, we become familiar with the poetess in her absence. She has been captured and imprisoned in the Mayor’s house, and tales and rumors about her abound. There is tyranny and violence in the outer world because of the first attempt on the Shah’s life, and the bloody reprisals that follow it. Inside the anderoun, with the arrival of the poetess, the lives of the women are changed forever. The poetess is a strong presence in the narratives of the four sections of the book; the books are named after women in the book, identified by their dependencies to the men in the narrative. The Book of the Mother (to the Shah), The Book of the Wife (to the Mayor), The Book of the Sister (to the Shah) and The Book of the Daughter (to the Mullah). The same incident is reported through different perspectives, and the narrative moves back and forth,expanding the scope of the story, bringing within it powerful social commentaries on the power of knowledge, the insecurities of those who hold power, and the helplessness of those who are denied the knowledge.
In Persian history, the poetess of Qazvin is actually Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, a renowned radical poet who was treated as an outcast, and executed for opposing the sharia law in 1852. She was 38 at the time. Author Bahiyyih Nakhjavani spins a beautiful historical tale of deceit, betrayal, ignorance, violence, subjugation and love in those times. The poetess becomes the target of hate among the men because she dares to question their knowledge, and refuses to give up without a debate that no one can hope to win against her. Her husband loathes her. “He could have forgiven her if she had just been more hesitant, less self-assured. A girl was supposed to be talkative but not articulate; she was allowed to be a chatterbox but not eloquent….She was incorrigible.She was relentless in her hunger for what she called the truth.”
Like in real life, the poetess is executed in the book as well, but her legacy does not die with her. The identity of the woman who comes to take away the poetess’ books is protected by the Mayor’s wife’s lie ,” I had never before met that woman, nor did I ever see her again.”
A century and a half later the issues that the poetess of Qazvin raised have not changed. The same questions rouse similar violence and uncertainty, and the debate on women and religion, and their roles and purpose still evoke the same fanaticism . Little is known of Tahirih outside of Persia, but the author Bahiyyin Nakhjavani is correct in calling her ‘the everywoman of our age’.
The Woman Who Read Too Much is wonderfully crafted, and the prose is lyrical. It is no wonder that the French translation of the book was considered to be “one of the best three books” of 2007.