Reviewed by Genevieve Hartman
A sweeping story of Iranian people, poetry, and politics, spanning three decades
Nadine Bjursten’s debut novel Half a Cup of Sand and Sky follows Amineh, a young Iranian woman who has moved to Tehran for university from the small village of Qamsar. An aspiring novelist, Amineh longs to tell her parents’ story as rural rose farmers, even as she is caught up in the air of revolution surrounding the death of a classmate which is sparking protests against the Shah.
As a student in 1977, Amineh is unsure of her place among the revolutionaries and social activists. She is gradually drawn in by her close friend Ava, and her eventual husband Farzad. Farzad is deeply invested in the country’s political state and, more broadly, in the goal of disarming nuclear weapons worldwide with the help of an international group called GR12.
Over the course of thirty-two years, Amineh must face the deep-seated upheaval of her country through the Iranian Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule, the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War, betrayal from those close to her, and threats to her family’s safety because of her husband’s anti-nuclear weapons work. Through everything, she experiences the delights and trials of marriage and parenthood, buoyed by the resounding love of family and friends.
Amineh is pulled between the traditional and the revolutionary as she survives through turbulent times. She struggles between realizing her dreams of a novel, coming to terms with what it means to be a wife and partner to her husband, and mothering her children in a country fraught with war and loss, all while nurturing her independent spirit. Her emotional intelligence and strength through the various seasons of her life make Amineh a well-developed narrator that readers will root for through her highest and lowest moments.
Half a Cup of Sand and Sky was a finalist for the PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction in 2016, and it’s easy to see why. From beautiful images of Iran, Sweden, and the UK, to heavily researched historical events, and to characters that are deeply human in their joys, mistakes, and dreams, Nadine Bjursten has written an exceptional book. This is a necessary story of maturity and resilience told from a perspective that is often overlooked by Western readers. Half a Cup of Sand and Sky will captivate folks of all genres and ages with its craft, vitality, and wisdom.
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