The title of Crowther's first novel might lead
prospective readers to believe that The Saffron Kitchen
is the latest addition to that comforting sub-genre of "foodie-novels"
that feed the mind and whet the appetite in equal measure, often
by interspersing tasty recipes into the plot. This is not the
case; in fact food takes a definite back seat to themes of
culture, family and identity as we follow one woman's struggle
to find happiness as she is pulled between two very different
Maryam Mazar was born and grew up in Mashhad in the Khorassan province of Eastern Iran. A strong willed and determined girl growing up in 1950s Iran, she is determined not to follow in the traditional path ordained for her, instead she has ambitions to become a nurse. Her happiest days are the summers she spends in the tiny village of Mazareh, where she enjoys a measure of freedom not tolerated at home. Following a disagreement with her domineering father, a general in the Shah's army, Maryam finds herself disowned and forced to leave her family home. She leaves behind everything she loves, including Fatima, her beloved wet-nurse, now the family cook; Ali, a young man who works for her father with whom she shares a love of poetry her sisters and the people of Mazareh.
Forty years later, living in Richmond, London with a loving English husband and a grown daughter, Maryam appears to be content, but deep down she's a haunted woman burdened with a secret past that she has to make a conscious effort to suppress. When her 12-year-old nephew comes to live with her and her husband, following the death of his mother Maryam's sister, the old memories can no longer be held back and seep to the surface as violent outbursts of anger. As a direct consequence of one of her outbursts, her pregnant daughter Sara loses her baby. Overwhelmed with guilt on top of the burden she already carries, Maryam flees her adopted life (with the blessing of her husband, Edward, who realizes that he must let her go in the hope she will come back) and returns to the village she knew as a child, leaving Sara and Edward bereft, and increasingly angry when it becomes apparent that Maryam does not have plans to return anytime soon. At her mother's request, Sara follows Maryam to Mazareh in the hope of understanding what is drawing her mother back and what she is running from.
Told from the points of view of mother and daughter, Crowther uses first and third person voices to contrast Maryam as a young woman with Maryam in the modern-day. Young Maryam talks in the first person with a strong voice and sense of identity, whereas the older Maryam speaks in the third person, one step removed from herself. Sara also speaks in the first person which, from the reader's point of view, puts a narrative barrier between her and the mother she knows, while enabling the reader to draw comparison with her and her mother as a young woman - in reading The Saffron Kitchen one is struck by the thought of how much better our children would understand us if they could spend just one day with us when we were their age!
Crowther introduces a cast of complex and fully realized characters, from the earthy and maternal Fatima (modeled on Crowther's grandmother) to the gentlemanly Doctor Ahlavi, who provides a crucial link between Maryam's past and present for both Sara and the reader. The Saffron Kitchen is an impressive debut about family, home, identity and the cultural and family ties that bind however much distance and time is put in their path. It is a wonderful book to read and ponder and would be an excellent choice for book clubs of all types but especially mother-daughter book clubs.
About the Author
Like Sara, Yasmin Crowther is the product of an Anglo-Iranian household (Iranian mother and British father). She describes herself as feeling like she is a part of both places but not fully understood by either. One of the reasons she wrote The Saffron Kitchen, her first novel, was to try and communicate how difficult it is to bridge both worlds, and yet how fundamentally essential it feels to be able to make that bridge.
Her mother, like Maryam in The Saffron Kitchen, grew up in Mashhad, and spent her summers in a village which is the basis of the fictional Mazareh. Like Maryam, her mother also came to England in her twenties; but there the similarity between Crowther's protagonist and her mother ends - she assures us The Saffron Kitchen is entirely fictional.
She grew up visiting Iran regularly before the revolution (1979), and visited again to research her book, spending time in Mashhad and also in the village on which Mazareh is based.
She attended Oxford University and now juggles writing with her work for SustainAbility, a London based company that advises clients on the risks and opportunities associated with corporate responsibility and sustainable development.
This review was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the August 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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