The Saffron Kitchen [NOOK Book]

Overview

In a powerful debut novel that moves between the crowded streets of London and the desolate mountains of Iran, Yasmin Crowther paints a stirring portrait of a family shaken by events from decades ago and worlds away. On a rainy day in London the dark secrets and troubled past of Maryam Mazar surface violently, with tragic consequences for her daughter, Sara, and her newly orphaned nephew. Maryam leaves her English husband and family and returns to the remote Iranian village where her story began. In a quest to ...
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The Saffron Kitchen

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Overview

In a powerful debut novel that moves between the crowded streets of London and the desolate mountains of Iran, Yasmin Crowther paints a stirring portrait of a family shaken by events from decades ago and worlds away. On a rainy day in London the dark secrets and troubled past of Maryam Mazar surface violently, with tragic consequences for her daughter, Sara, and her newly orphaned nephew. Maryam leaves her English husband and family and returns to the remote Iranian village where her story began. In a quest to piece their life back together, Sara follows her mother and finally learns the terrible price Maryam once had to pay for her freedom, and of the love she left behind. Set against the breathtaking beauty of two very different places, this stunning family drama transcends culture and is, at its core, a rich and haunting narrative about mothers and daughters.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Maryam is the willful daughter of an Iranian general who backed the Shah of Iran during the (U.S.-backed) 1953 coup that toppled Iran's prime minister, Mossadegh. In the midst of the turmoil, and with the threat of an arranged marriage hanging over her, Maryam is sheltered one night by her father's trusted assistant, Ali, a young man near her age 16 for whom she feels a shy attraction. And though still a virgin the next morning, their feelings for each other are clear. Maryam is sent away by her aloof father ("she is no daughter of mine"), a painful memory that, decades later, shatters her settled marriage to an understanding if pained British husband, and bewilders and angers her own daughter. A 40-year separation from Ali and a tender reunion in a remote village are just a few turns of the intense plot, full of tragic coilings and romantic passion, that make this a wonderfully intricate debut novel. Crowther, daughter of a British father and an Iranian mother, powerfully depicts Maryam's wrenching romantic and nationalistic longings, exploring the potency of heritage and the pain of exile. (Jan. 2) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly

Crowther's debut novel paints a vivid double portrait of a spirited mother-daughter pair, first- and second-generation immigrants to England from Iran whose relationship grows turbulent when shadows from the mother's past begin to overwhelm her. This beautifully produced reading starts with the bright voice of Ariana Fraval as Sara, the daughter, but it is soon overtaken by the darker, melodically accented tones of Mehr Mansuri as Maryam, Sara's mother. Maryam returns to the tiny village where she grew up to come to terms with her past, especially with the ghost of her father and with her first love, Ali, who has been waiting for her return. As Maryam journeys through Iran and back into her memories, and then induces Sara to come too, Mansuri's voice takes on myriad emotional shades, from wonder and delight to sharp regret and painful uncertainty. Intervals of Persian-inflected music helps set an exotic yet contemplative mood. Fraval and Mansuri's authentic pronunciation of the occasional foreign words allows listeners to be swept up by Crowther's lovely, haunting story even more easily than when reading it for themselves. Simultaneous release with the Viking hardcover. (Reviews, Oct. 2). (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Crowther's uneven debut, split between London and Iran, traces the journey a mother and daughter make to close the distance between their lives. A tragic accident begins the tale, unraveling life-as-usual for Maryam and her daughter Sara. When Maryam hits her nephew Saeed (who, following the death of his mother in Iran, now lives in London with Maryam and husband Edward), she sends the frightened boy running to a bridge. Sara chases him, and in the struggle, miscarries her child. Before Sara even leaves the hospital, Maryam is off to Iran, guilty, disconsolate, unable to sustain the fragile patchwork of her past and present. Back in Iran, in the rural village where she spent idyllic summers, she reflects on the troubled year that the Shah was returned to power and she was banished from home. With her father, a wealthy general, high-spirited Maryam and her two sisters live a privileged life. She even has an English tutor, young Ali, who is teaching her Matthew Arnold's classic poem, "Dover Beach." Her nanny Fatima binds her breasts to keep her seemingly girlish, but her father is considering marriage for her while Maryam dreams of travel and a life away from her father's restrictions. An unavoidable and innocent indiscretion with Ali dishonors her father, who then disowns her. Maryam becomes a nurse, goes to England and marries sweet Edward, while she recites "Dover Beach" to the sea, hoping her voice will reach Ali. While Maryam indulges in her reveries and reconnects with Ali, Sara and Edward attempt to get on with life in England. Edward has given up, believing Maryam will never return-in fact, was never really his-and Sara, now caring for Saeed, tries to understand why a lost childhoodin Iran is more vital to her mother than the ensuing 30 years in England with the family she created. Indeed, it is a question readers will ask-and that Sara poses when she eventually travels to Iran-but one that Maryam is unable to adequately answer. Though Crowther builds an evocative portrait of Iran and the painful pull of two cultures, too much of the novel hinges on an overly enigmatic character and her vague longing for the indefinable idea of home. Agent: Toby Eady/Toby Eady Associates
From the Publisher
"Beautiful . . . A heartfelt story about unbreakable family bonds."
-Entertainment Weekly

"A wonderfully intricate debut novel . . . exploring the potency of heritage and the pain of exile."
-Publishers Weekly, starred review

"The Saffron Kitchen has a dreamlike quality that gradually draws in and washes over a reader."
-USA Today

"A fine novel of cultural and generational tension."
-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"A moving look at the plight of the immigrant torn between two homes."
-The Christian Science Monitor

"With richly descriptive language evoking the riotous streets of Iran to the comfortable London suburbs, Crowther's well-crafted narrative will keep readers eagerly turning the pages of this poetic debut about mothers and daughters."
-PAGES

"Crowther's debut is spellbinding, and her cross-cultural perception and empathy are illuminating and affecting."
-Booklist

"An unusual and satisfying read."
-The Guardian, London

"A book about edges . . . where unconscious drives become seemingly rational decisions; and where different cultural values confront each other . . . Crowther [is] a novelist of exceptional honesty and grace."
-The Sunday Telegraph, London

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781440623295
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/2007
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 373,385
  • File size: 216 KB

Meet the Author

Yasmin Crowther was born to an Iranian mother and a British father. After graduating from Oxford, she worked for a variety of corporations on issues of globalization and sustainable development. This is her first novel.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
Born to an Iranian mother and British father, Yasmin Crowther makes a unique and impressive debut onto the literary scene with her remarkable novel about culture, family, and identity. The Saffron Kitchen is a poignant and timely story about one woman’s struggle to belong to more than one world and how that pull between identities affects a family for generations to come.

Richmond Hill in London is a far cry from where Maryam Mazar was born and raised, the little village of Mazareh in Iran, but this affluent suburb is where she has lived for more than forty years. She has what seems a good and comfortable life, with a devoted husband, Edward, and loving daughter, Sara. But when Maryam’s last living sister dies and her twelve-year-old nephew, Saeed, comes from Iran to live with them, his arrival triggers a series of dramatic events, re-opening a wound that Maryam can no longer ignore. She decides there is only one way to heal: she must return home.

With her husband’s reluctant blessing, Maryam travels alone to Mazareh to face both the dreams and the demons of her past. Mazareh is in many ways a harsh place, with mud dwellings and little in the way of creature comforts. Yet when Maryam arrives, she begins to feel a sense of peace and wholeness, a connection with the earth, that has been missing for forty years. And perhaps most important, the first love of her life, Ali, her wealthy father’s former assistant, is here, awaiting her return. The healing has begun.

Maryam was a girl born before her time, independent and strong-willed, refusing to follow the traditional path for women: marriage and domestic life. Forced to leave Iran after her father disowned her for shaming the family through a misunderstood encounter with Ali, Maryam nevertheless has a powerful bond with this place and its people. But now she must decide if the life that includes her past will now become her future.

Back in London, both Sara and Edward are feeling confused and angry that Maryam seems to have no impending plans to return. How could she abandon her family? When Maryam writes and asks her to visit, Sara feels she must go. She arrives feeling bitter and resentful that her mother is acting as if their life in London is meaningless, especially when she sees Ali and her mother together. But as Maryam introduces Sara to the people and places of her childhood and finally reveals the shocking details of her forced departure, Sara begins to understand her mother in a way she never could before. In the end, Sara comes to accept that only by letting her mother go, can she finally get her mother back.

Exploring the themes of displacement and exile, of families struggling to embrace more than one culture, of longing and despair, The Saffron Kitchen is ultimately a love story, not only between a woman and a man, but of a woman for her homeland.

ABOUT YASMIN CROWTHER

Yasmin Crowther lives in London. She grew up in an Anglo-Iranian household. This is her first novel.

A CONVERSATION WITH YASMIN CROWTHER

You have worked for many years in the corporate world, and this is your first novel—a very impressive debut. Would you tell readers a bit about how you came to write it?

I’ve always wanted to write since I was a small child and writing has always been part of my professional career, which required me to articulate complex societal issues and to understand conflict and the challenge of engaging and reconciling different perspectives. But my day job wasn’t creative writing, which was always my burning desire. As the years went by, I made ever more concerted life choices that would allow me time to write. About three or four years ago I found myself on a short writing course run by Hanif Kureishi and it was like finally being allowed to breathe! The germ of The Saffron Kitchenemerged on that course and I wrote it over the following three or so years.

You dedicate the book, in part, to your grandmothers, Eleanor Powell and Khadijeh Assadi Moghadam. Would you talk about their influence on you? You also thank your mother for her stories of growing up in Mashhad and Assadieh. In what ways is Maryam modeled on your mother and her experiences?

I’ve always been acutely aware of how privileged my life has been compared to my grandmothers. Both were largely uneducated, without profession and entirely dependent on the men in their lives. By contrast, I’ve studied at Oxford University, have a professional career and the opportunity to fulfill a childhood longing to write. It seems amazing to me that I have all that choice and freedom, when my grandmothers had so little. I suppose my book is a gift back to them in a way, although I scarcely knew them.

My mother grew up in Mashhad and came to England in her twenties. In contrast to Maryam, my mother came happily to England and remains happily with my father. The plot of The Saffron Kitchen is entirely fictional—what happens to Maryam and Sara has not happened to my mother or me. However, when I was a child, my Mum would tell me stories of her own childhood growing up in Iran. They captured my imagination. She would tell of summers spent in a village outside Mashhad, and I’ve since returned there with her—it is the village upon which Mazareh is based. My maternal grandmother also visited my family in England when I was a child, and she is largely the inspiration for Fatima, sitting on the garden wall watching her opium poppies grow!

The narrative voice of the novel changes throughout, from the third person, to Sara’s, to Maryam’s. Would you discuss why you took this storytelling approach?

Young Maryam speaks in the first person. Her first words are: “I am Maryam Mazar.” She has a strong voice and sense of identity. Her father’s punishment of her and her banishment from home are in some ways obliterating of her sense of self. She says “I was gone.” Older Maryam speaks in the third person because she is literally at a remove from herself, from the strong “I” of her girlhood. Apart from part four of the book, Sara also speaks in the first person. This is because I wanted the reader to have to make the transition from the mind of a young Englishwoman to the mind of the young Iranian girl who would eventually grow up to be her mother. I wanted the reader to experience the discomfort of that shift, and then to eventually grow comfortable with it—the transition from mother to daughter, from Iran to England and back again. Both Sara and Maryam speak in the third person when they are together in Iran as this was the most straightforward way to tell their combined story and to represent their different voices and experiences equally.

You were born in Britain to an Iranian mother and British father. Do you think of yourself as being wholly British, or as having two identities? Could you discuss your own ideas of identity and what impact they have had on you?

I feel like I am a part of both places and not fully understood by either place. I think that’s why I wrote the book—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. My education has been English and I have the choices and freedoms of a woman with a British passport. Yet I grew up in a home where there was a strong set of Iranian norms and culture, and that is woven into my fiber as well. I tend to think of myself as European.

Maryam never assimilates into British culture, despite having lived there for decades. Based on your personal experiences, do you think immigrants ever truly assimilate? Should they even try to assimilate completely?

I disagree. I think that Maryam certainly assimilated into British culture—she learned the traditions, she had a home and family and a life there for many decades. In her final letter to Edward she recognizes that she may return to England some time in the future. I think that Maryam’s ability to choose between the two countries is a mark of her assimilation. I don’t believe that assimilated individuals should never want to return to their country and culture of origin or be required to obliterate that sense of identity. They should feel able to retain that cultural memory—be it complex, traumatic, or precious—and be welcomed for contributing its lessons to whichever land they choose to make their home, for however long.

Would you talk about how you decided to use Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” as such an integral part of the story?

It’s a poem that can accompany you for an entire life, much as T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. For me, “Dover Beach” captures the hopefulness and idealism of youth, the longing for a “land of dreams,” as well as capturing the poignancy of maturity and age, of coming to terms with loss, hurt and conflict and yet—through it all—making the plea to “stay true to one another.” It puts the integrity of personal relationships at the centre of a confused and warring world, and I find that extremely moving and powerful. Right from the beginning, it seemed overwhelmingly to be the poem of Maryam’s life, from her girlhood aspirations through to her decisions as a mature woman and her need to find a way to be true to herself and to the others in her life.

What kind of connection, if any, do you have with Iran now? Did you visit in order to do research for the novel?

I have an Iranian mother and family in Iran and so of course I have a connection to the place, people, and culture. I have grown up with it—maybe not in my backyard, but it has a persistent place in conversations and in my mind. I visited very often as a child before the revolution and returned again in my mid-twenties. I did visit to research for the book, and stayed in Mashhad and in a village in the northeast of the country, which is the basis for the fictional village of Mazareh.

What role would you say literature plays in today’s highly charged political climate?

Maybe the role of literature is to tell personal stories and perspectives, of family life struggling to go on as usual—eating, praying, laughing, falling in love, arguing, fighting, getting married, having children, divorcing, dying, surviving. Maybe, as in Matthew Arnold’s poem, the role of literature is to show the struggle to “be true to one another” as an enduring human trait in spite of abuse, war, and politics.

Although you vividly portray the oppression of women in Iran, you have also created some intensely sympathetic and powerful male characters, including Ali and Dr. Ahlavi. Would you discuss their importance in the novel, and your thoughts about the roles of men and women in Western and Persian cultures?

I didn’t set out to portray the oppression of women in Iran—in fact, I hope that I’ve painted a more complex picture than that. Maryam’s Aunt Soraya is a powerful woman and Fatima is wonderfully earthy and maternal. Maryam’s oldest sister, Mairy, does not feel oppressed by tradition and by the expectations of her family—she feels comfortable within a familiar routine. Of course Maryam does rebel and, years later, Farnoosh similarly feels confined by her circumstances—but both transcend that. Maryam’s mother and her stepmother Leyla seem the most trapped. So I set out to show a diversity of characters rather than to tell a generic story of oppression. I would be sad if that is the main message readers take from this book. Ali and Doctor Ahlavi are indeed wonderful to have spent time creating—they represent tenderness, integrity, fairness, dignity, and respect: the characteristics of many people I know both in Iran and elsewhere.

Herman Melville wrote that, “Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.” Do you agree? How do you define “home” for yourself? How do you think Maryam has defined it?

The concept of home is overwhelmingly important to me—a place to feel secure, a place where I can be with my husband-to-be and where I can write. At the end of the book, Maryam chooses Mazareh as her home because it is a place where she experiences the freedom to be herself: in a place where she is not judged (as by her niece in Mashhad) and where she feels free of the etiquette and conformity of her life in London. Even in England, she was most at home in the garden with her bonfires! Maryam derives a strong sense of self from the natural landscape and wilderness of Mazareh as well as from Ali, and from the sense that her daughter knows it and accepts her as such.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • The Middle East is very much in the news these days, and perhaps never before has it been more on the mind of Westerners. What issues did The Saffron Kitchen bring up for you, and did it change or influence your idea of Iran in any way?
     
  • Maryam says she hits Saeed to make him strong, just as her own father hit her as a girl. Do you believe this? Why or why not? Discuss the reasons you think Maryam feels so angry at Saeed. What does he represent to her? Why do you think some abused people grow up to continue that abuse, while others vow never to repeat the “sins of their fathers”?
     
  • When Maryam returns home (p. 28) after taking Sara to the hospital, she says to herself, “I should never have left.” What is she referring to? The hospital? Iran? And what does she mean by this? How does her statement foreshadow what happens in the rest of the novel?
     
  • What is the moral of the Gossemarbart story and how does it relate to Maryam’s own story? Discuss the symbolism of the stone woman and its significance in the novel.
     
  • “Your father was kind to us before his death,” Hassan tells Maryam upon her return (p. 116). Was there any good in this man? Was he a product of his time and traditions? What makes a man like Maryam’s father turn out the way he does in contrast with a man like Doctor Ahlavi?
     
  • Sara and Saeed form a strong connection with one another. Talk about the things they have in common, the things that make them different, and how they might derive comfort from one another.
     
  • Farnoosh, Hassan’s unmarried daughter, says to Maryam, “You think [having your family is] enough? When you leave yours behind? Please don’t patronize me” (p. 128). Can you explain Farnoosh’s point of view? Do you see Maryam as selfish? Why or why not?
     
  • “For each freedom we choose, we must give up another,” Maryam says (p. 128). What does she mean in terms of her own life? Do you agree or disagree, and why?
     
  • What do you think Maryam wants for Sara? Does Sara have a right to be angry at her mother? How would you feel, as a daughter or son, if your mother left you to return to the place of her birth?
     
  • Where does Maryam’s love for Iran end and her love for Ali begin? Are they separate?
     
  • Discuss how the author uses the color saffron as a symbol throughout the novel. What does it represent, to Maryam, to Sara, to Saeed?
     
  • Think about the different worlds to which you belong. Consider the transitions between these worlds and discuss how navigating these transitions affects your life.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 19 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2007

    A reviewer

    This is a beautiful and touching story. The description 'lyrical prose' was never more true. The literary emphasis is on setting and characters. May this amazing writer give us many more novels.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Good storytelling

    In London, Iranian expatriate Maryam hits her nephew Saeed who lives with her and her husband Edward since his mother died. Saeed runs away to avoid a beating, but Maryam¿s pregnant daughter Sara chases him and then miscarries. While Sara despondently recuperates in the hospital, Maryam, feeling guilt, runs away to the village in Iran where as a child she spent the happiest moments of her life.----------------- Maryam looks back to the moment everything changed for her. She and her two sisters enjoyed an upper class lifestyle due to their father being a General loyal to the newly installed Shah. Her sire hired a tutor Ali, whose teachings include Arnold's 'Dover Beach', which led to the teen dreaming of far away places. However, her strict father catches her and Ali committing an unacceptable though innocent transgression he throws her out. Maryam became a nurse, moved to Arnold¿s England, married kindhearted Edward, had a daughter while pining for her Ali, until she finally leaves behind those who cared about her.------------------ This is a wonderful character driven mid twentieth century clash of cultures. Edward is a stiff upper lip Englishman who knows his wife will never return to him Sara cannot comprehend her mother¿s soul searching yearning for what she lost three decades earlier finally Maryam is enigmatic with her need to go home even though her memories are no longer there. Though her desires are not fully understandable as a longing is different than a doing, fans will appreciate this deep look at a woman pulled by two cultures.--------------- Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2013

    Hollys gym

    Level:70-80....Pokemon:Espeon, Glasion, Umbreon, Flareon, Zorua, and Reshiram(Shining) Gym type: cant tell

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2012

    this book is good, but certain bc members always choose foreign

    this book is good, but certain bc members always choose foreign stories. want to read am. stories by am. authors for a change!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 12, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Saffron Kitchen

    Very Predictable but a good read for a book club or beach! Very touching relationship between mother and daughter...culture differences etc.

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  • Posted December 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Disappointing.

    I've really started to enjoy Mid Eastern based fiction. I was looking forward to this one but was fairly disappointed. In fact, I just abandoned it after reading half the book. It didn't really hold my interest. I usually enjoy books which jump back and forth between characters, locales, and/or timeframes as this one did but the writer has to employ some distinctive tactics to keep the reader from being confused during this process. This author didn't really succeed in this. I was constantly trying to figure out character/place/time she was writing about and since I wasn't interested I decided it wasn't really worth the effort to continue.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2009

    Two Cultures that Come Together

    This beautiful book uses poetry to tell it's sad story of the life
    of an Iranian woman married to an Englishman. We learn that through
    the poem Dover Beach she decides to come to England and marry and
    try to forget her tragic past. She can never quite forget it as we
    learn in Auden's poem.
    Her daughter and husband suffer because Maryam suffers but ultimately
    find peace and a way to happiness as Maryam does.
    I recommend this book and it reminds me of The Namesake and also
    The Space Between Us.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2007

    a good summer book

    I enjoyed the book very much, it was touching and reflective.

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    Posted November 8, 2011

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    Posted September 1, 2010

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    Posted March 8, 2010

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    Posted January 13, 2009

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    Posted October 25, 2008

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