Saturday, August 3, 2019

WITMonth Day 3 | Disoriental by Négar Djavadi | Review

I won't pretend that I didn't warm to Disoriental more slowly than I was expecting. Négar Djavadi's novel (translated from French by Tina Kovar) was hyped up for me to such an intense degree that I was extremely hesitant to begin reading it. How does one go about reading a novel that everyone has loved, knowing that you always end up with opposing opinions? This time, I can safely say that I did not emerge with a contrary opinion. While it took me about 100 pages to really get into the rhythm of Disoriental, once I did it was hard for me to get out. The book builds slowly, but it builds, pulsing through until a thoroughly satisfying ending.
Reading Disoriental at a rainbowed Grand Canyon

Disoriental tells multiple stories at once, but I'm not sure it's quite the story that the publisher blurb advertises. In fact, I again find myself wondering who wrote the blurb and to what end. The suggestion that this book is a sort of wide-reaching epic, told from Kimiâ's perspective ends up feeling off. Not that Disoriental isn't a wide-reaching story, but Kimiâ - unnamed for a significant portion of the story - hardly features in its first half. As we alternate between Kimiâ's stories of her family history and her own vague, at-present presence in a fertility clinic (why? how old is Kimiâ? where is her partner?), we get a fairly deep exploration of Iran's history and culture.

The imbalance in the narrative is probably what threw me off at first. Last year, I read an Israeli novel מטבעות הזהב של סנובר חנום (roughly translated as Sanober Khanum's Gold Coins), which is a multi-generational story of a Jewish-Iranian family, spanning their origins in northern Iran to their migration to Tehran, and then their relocation to the US, the UK, and Israel. I liked the book a lot and the synopsis of Disoriental definitely reminded me of that novel. Disoriental's opening - mostly historical, distant, written in a deeply reflective style - made me feel like the book was just a little too similar. The writing was good, but it didn't quite mesh. The mysterious initial narration (who is Kimiâ?) made me feel like the book was missing something, not that it was building to something.

But Djavadi proves to be a far more capable writer than that. Indeed, Disoriental achieves that rare feat of growing so precisely that it neither feels like the shift came out of the blue, nor that it never actually lifted off. What's fascinating is that Disoriental is not a thriller by any means, it is simply... thrilling. While Djavadi leaves certain things unspoken until much later in the book (and I use that word deliberately, since it soon emerges that these are not exactly mysteries...), the revelations don't end up feeling like too much of a statement or a process. Kimiâ tells her story differently in different parts, which at first feels like a writing flaw, but soon emerges as one of the more effective means of storytelling at Djavadi's disposal.

Disoriental does a lot. Alongside its family epic (of a sort), it is still a mildly political novel, even as it also... isn't. Of course any novel that writes about Iranian exiles is inherently political, and yet that is never the focus of Djavadi's story. As the narrative jumps backwards and forwards through time, through loops and Kimiâ's meandering thoughts, a small piece of Iran's history does emerge. Sort of. At times. In pieces. (This is something that Kimiâ herself muses about, the nature of political stories and what makes a certain story inherently political. It's a topic that I tried to write about during WITMonth a few years back and I found myself practically punching the book in excitement as I read it in-text.

If the first part of Disoriental is very heavy on Kimiâ's family history, part two insists on making sure we know who exactly we're dealing with. Here, we learn about Kimiâ's own personal history, her childhood, her relationship with her parents and sisters, and her outlook on life. We learn about why she is in the fertility clinic (I prefer to leave this part vague, because I was actually unaware of the reason and quite enjoyed the gentle build until this question was answered). We also learn about the Event that Kimiâ's references throughout part one, the massive, life-changing event that reshaped her life and that of her family. And while it's sort of easy to guess what the Event might be and feeling like it'll just end up being another event that vaguely disappoints (as many of those earth-shaking central mysteries in novels often do), Djavadi surprises by not leaving the mystery ongoing for too long, nor by treating it as something it isn't. Its effect, after all, is focused on Kimiâ herself, creating a far more intimate effect than I expected.

This is how the book builds, and build it does. Even with two clearly defined parts (Kimiâ gently mocks the B-side, which details her story), it never feels like the story shifts in a dramatic way. Kimiâ's narration in particular keeps the story well-grounded and I grew to love her voice. By the time we actually get to know her properly, I felt deeply invested in her life and emotional state. As the second half gently shifts gears, I almost didn't notice how much I cared. It's at the novel's end that it suddenly hit me that I was all in. Which is a fairly effective way to tell a story, if we're going to be honest about it.

That's how all of Disoriental feels - effective. It's not a particularly long book, but it achieves so much, whether in terms of its storytelling technique or its character building or its use of omission and tension. The books works on so many levels by its end, I genuinely felt like I wanted to share it with a dozen more readers. And so I finish this review on that note: This is a wonderful book, well worth your time. Even if you start off a little rocky, like I did. Trust me: It's absolutely worth the journey.


  1. I too wondered at the blurb, which led me to expect something very different. I really enjoyed it, but it wasn't as advertised on the tin and that perhaps does the book a disservice.

  2. I loved this book, and am glad to read your thoughts on it too. I thought it was stunning and one I've been sharing ever since I read it.


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