Set against the backdrop of the 1978/9 Iranian Revolution, Winter in Tabriz by Sheila Llewllyn is a truly remarkable novel. In fact, it’s a very strong contender for Tales from Absurdia’s 2021 Book of the Year.
Winter in Tabriz is passionate, packed with beautifully written prose, and possesses a gut-punching ennui that lasts for quite some time once the final page has been turned.
Love and Longing in Tabriz
Winter in Tabriz is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read in years.
There’s an unassuming warmth to Llewllyn’s prose that could draw any reader in. It’s like being regaled by an old friend – capturing that trusted and earnest sincerity. Some writers just have that innate ability to transform ink on the page into tangible people and places, and Llewellyn is one of them.
The four main characters; Damian, Anna, Arash, and Reza are real people with real lives. The reader is privy to their inner lives in a way not not too many writers are able to achieve. We get to know their hopes, fears, loves, anxieties, grief, and political alignments in a manner that gives Winter in Tabriz a strong identity.
You needn’t be familiar with the Iranian Revolution either – Damian and Anna aren’t either. Through their deepening relationships with the Iranian Poet Arash and his older, more streetwise brother Reza, the reader’s world expands in line with their readings of the unfolding political crisis.
The novel is told through an expertly crafted framed narrative – with Damian brooding over the previous few years, alone, in an isolated German village.
Poring over his own diary entries from his time at university in Berkeley, Anna’s in Oxford, and their collective experiences in Iran, the story knits together in a smart, revelatory manner. It’s a phenomenally immersive way of writing.
How Winter in Tabriz Negotiatates the Complex Politics of Iran
For many years, Iran was run by the Shah – a secular monarchy that moved away from traditional Islamic rule, in favour of more seemingly Western values. It was, regardless, a regime that enforced censorship and brutal policing.
However, during the 1970s a movement gained momentum to return to a more traditionally Islamic rule of law – with those loyal to the then-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini attempting to bring about enough civil unrest against the Shah, that Khomeini might return to the country and take power.
The subject is far more complex than this, with a huge amount of division between those who identified as Iranian, Persian, and Azerbaijani. But in essence, Iran was largely in two camps, those who remained loyal to the Shah and his allegedly secular politics, and those who wanted to see Iran become an Islamic Republic under Khomeini.
(Incidentally, Against The Compass has a great list of books on Iranian politics, should you wish to read more about this.)
Anyway, Winter in Tabriz covers the events of the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of two westerner translators, Damian and Anna, who find themselves in Iran in 1978 at the boiling point of the revolution. Damian through love, and Anna on a journey of emotional exorcism following a death in the family.
Thankfully, the novel doesn’t exaggerate for the reader’s consumption – Winter in Tabriz is a novel about the everyday. Sometimes, it’s simply about how four people in lockdown amidst civil disorder are able to negotiate the conflict simply to acquire food and drink whilst people are rioting in the streets.
But it’s more meaningful than this too. Llewellyn’s novel is cartographic in its construction. The streets of Tabriz are lovingly detailed, from the university to the bazaar – the city’s hub of cultural and economic exchange.
It’s a remarkable journey, and a highly educational one at that.
The amount of research that has gone into this novel – which Llewellyn reveals in the appendices – is simply staggering. Llewellyn even draws upon her own experiences as a Westerner abroad in Iran during this exact period.
And it shows – this is a novel that is highly authentic. It rewards its reader with a rich understanding of the cultural politics of a nation.
It is, in a single word, remarkable.
Seriously – do not sleep on this book. It’s fantastic.