The Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani
In an interview at the end of The Children of the Jacaranda Tree, Sahar Delijani writes that, through her novel, she wanted to portray a very particular Iranian generation: a generation which she terms ‘the children of the revolution’ (p.283). These are the children who grew up being cared for by their extended family because their parents were in jail; who were born and brought up under the threat of violence; who would see the whole landscape of the world change over the course of their lives. It is a generation which means a lot to Delijani, since it represents her own experience of growing up in Iran under the care of her grandparents. In The Children of the Jacaranda Tree, Delijani uses her experiences to open up a topic which is not regularly explored in fiction: not the immediate trauma of war and tyranny, but the emotional fallout for those who grow up with the shadow of it in their families.
However, in order to explore this particular focus of the novel, Delijani has to start with the experience of the parents who are in prison. The opening chapter, of Azar giving birth and bringing up her baby in prison, is immediately tense and engaging. My aunt, who lent me this book, warned me that I might find the first chapter hard to read; it is hard to read, but it is also incredibly effective: from these first moments, the reader is brought into a world where every word, every action, every visible thought is policed and interrogated. The reader is introduced to the rest of the parents over the next few chapters with surprising pace and, as their paths are now connected by the prison, are given the tales of how they came to be there in the first place.
It is only once the stories of the parents are established that the narrative moves to the children, a solid structural decision by Delijani, since one of the easiest ways for the reader to keep the characters straight in their head is by matching up the mentions of the parents’ experience with the now-grown child. The pacing slows significantly as the children’s present-day stories are explored, albeit with some large geographical movements. This change of pace is understandable, since Delijani is exploring the emotional fallout of the trauma, yet it does mean that the latter part of the narrative is a little more hard work to get through.
Delijani initially started The Children of the Jacaranda Tree as a series of short stories, with each story focussing on a different family, but ultimately decided that it would work better as a novel. Whilst I do think that it works as a novel, there is a disjointedness in the narrative which results from this shift of form, and it is occasionally difficult to work out what is happening to which characters at every stage. I do wonder how different the book would be if it was a collection of intertwining short stories instead of a novel; personally, I would have loved to read that. I am aware, of course, that it would not have been a necessarily strategic decision for Delijani’s debut work, since she has a specific aim in bringing attention to these themes, and short story collections generally do not sell as well as novels. However, it would have been interesting to see how the confusions in the narrative could have been tightened and clarified through the use of a different form.
I have to admit that I was quite uninformed about the fall-out from the Iranian Revolution and had to do a bit of research to find out what actually happened. Whilst I enjoyed this book for its own sake, as a novel with well-developed characters and multiple plots, a large reason for recommending this is that it clearly and vividly describes a situation which many readers would not have much knowledge about. Delijani uses her own experience as a child of the revolution here to great effect, and there is a realism to the characters as well as their responses to their experiences. I would recommend this book, particularly if you are at all interested in literature that depicts Middle Eastern cultures.