Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Night Letter by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

From each heart is a window to other hearts.
They are not separated like two bodies,
Just as, even though two lamps are not joined,
Their light is united by a single ray.
Night Letter is the sequel to Sayres' Anahita's Riddle which tells the story of a young Afshar girl who is determined to marry a man she loves rather than the thrice married khan of her tribe.

In Night Letter Anahita is travelling with her mother and grandmother to Marv for her wedding to Arash, the Qajar prince and governor of Marv. Their caravan is only days away from Marv.  On a windy night while Maman Bozorg, Anahita is startled to see three men wearing black turbans storm into their tent. They seize the two women, throw them over the backs of horses and race off across the plains. Hours later they stop at an oasis and when Anahita tries to protest she is hit in the face and knocked out. She awakes later on in a cave to learn that they have left her grandmother at the oasis and that she is now in the company of only two men, one she calls Hawk because of his eyes and an kinder man who speaks French whom she names Muhammad.

Anahita decides she will try to leave clues for those who will surely come in search of her. In the cave she leaves bloodied rags and manages to scratch some clues on the wall of the cave. As they continue their journey along the dusty plain to the north, Hawk reveals that Anahita is destined for a sigheh with a prominent man in Bukhara. A sigheh is a temporary marriage that a woman makes voluntarily, setting the duration and bride price.  Anahita has no intention of agreeing to such a thing even as Hawk threatens her.

Meanwhile Arash learns from young Pirouz, the street boy Arash befriended, that Anahita has been kidnapped. Pirouz learned of Anahita's predicament in the market and he tells Arash that Anahita is to be sold as slaves. Arash's scouts inform him that the Afshars believe that Anahita will be taken to Bukhara. However, Ismail and Arash do not believe she will be sold into slavery but rather that her captors want a ransom. Arash sends his scouts to search the routes to Bukhara, Samarkand and Herat as well as the routes to Isqhabad, Tabriz and Constantinople.

Arash decides to go to the oasis where Anahita was last seen with her grandmother and follow her tracks.  His friend Ismail tells him that should he have to buy back Anahita from the slave market in Bukhara, he will need a great deal of money. Arash instructs Ismail to travel to Bukhara, a protectorate of Russia and should he find Anahita there, to buy her back.

Continuing on her journey, Anahita, Muhammad and Hawk cross the Rhud Amu Darya and up the mountain. Anahita, Muhammad and Hawk reach the summit of the mountain but their descent triggers an avalanche that buries Muhammad and half buries Anahita to her waist, slamming her into a tree and cracking her ribs. Hawk and his horse, Rakhsh escape unscathed, but Anahita learns that Muhammad who's real name is Mahan is no where to be found. Hawk frees Anahita from the snow and does not stop to search for Mahan, instead forcing her to journey to Bukhara

Everyone begins searching now for Anahita. Dariyoush, who was seriously wounded in the thigh during Anahita's kidnapping, decides to set out in pursuit of Anahita.  He traces the kidnappers to the oasis and then follows a trail to Samarkand. In Marv, where Anahita's caravan has arrived her father, Kadkhuda Farhad, organizes Arash's soldiers while Reza and Pirouz take the train to Isqhabad.Reza and Pirouz do not find Anahita in the slave markets in Isqhabad and Reza sends Pirouz back to Marv while he journey's on to Bukhara. Farhad decides to leave for Bukhara telling Maman Bozog, Mojdeh and Shirin that they will stay in Marv. However, Maman Bozog has her own plans, knowing the men will not be able to search within the women's circles of the city for Anahita.

Arash and Dariyoush unexpectedly meet up on the plains near the mountains where Arash directs Dariyoush to travel to Bukhara, while he continues onward to Samarkand. During this time Anahita and Hawk stop at a teahouse in a village on the side of the mountain. After resting and obtaining boots for Anahita, they continue their journey with Hawk revealing his name to be Taman Bas and his intention to sell Anahita to the Emir Abdullah of Bukhara. Can Arash and Anahita's family save her from such a terrible fate?

Night Letter is a thrilling sequel that vividly portrays life in early 20th century Iran while tackling the issue of slavery and trafficking. Sayres' prose manages to convey both a sense of danger and romance as Anahita faces the real threat of a forced temporary marriage, while her devoted family and her beloved fiance struggle to find and free her. Sayres uses the first person narration of Anahita alternating with the third person narratives which tell what is happening to other characters in the story as they hunt for her. Anahita's voice is realistic, alternating between courage and boldness, and overwhelming fear. At times she even begins to doubt the presence of Allah in all of her trials.

The title of the novel refers to anonymous letters that were written outlining grievances against the Persian Qajar dynasty and read in teahouses during the early 1900's. One such grievance was the selling of the women and girls of the town of Quchan when the men were unable to pay their taxes to the local governor after a drought. Sayres incorporates this tragic real life event into her novel and supplies more information about it in an author's note at the back of the book. The situation was discussed in night letters like the one Anahita wrote and resulted in debates in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament and ultimately led to the investigation and trial of those responsible.

As with the first novel, Night Letter is filled with many of the customs and traditions of Persia, especially regarding the relations between men and women and marriage. Sayres manages to convey the strong sense of family in society as both Arash and Anahita's families work together to save her. There are also several verses of the beautiful poetry of  the Persian poets, Jalaluddin Rumi, Hafiz, Rabi'a of Basra, Omar Khayyam and Mirabi of India.

Night Letter is populated with the same fascinating and beautifully crafted characters; the strong, courageous Anahita, noble Arash, the determined Dariyoush who still deeply loves Anahita, brave Pirouz, and the wise Maman Bozog. The villains, the heartless Taman Bas, Mahan who was blackmailed and soon comes to regret what he has done and the spoiled, cruel emir are equally well done, lending depth to the story.

The cover art for this novel was done by Tehran artist, Rashin Kheiriyeh and portrays a bride kidnapping.  In a note from Kheiriyeh he writes that the painting was done in the Persian miniature style which features the use of vibrant colours and oriental patterns using pencil and acrylic. There is an extensive Author's Note at the back of the novel, along with a discussion guide and an extensive glossary while the front of the novel contains a map of the region showing Anahita's journey.

Night Letter is highly recommend to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially that of the Middle East. Well written, exciting and fascinating to read!

Book Details:
Night Letter by Meghan Nuttall Sayres
Orange County: California.    Nortia Press    2012
281 pp.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Thanks for writing such a thorough and beautiful review of this book!