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‘Refuge’ review: Dina Nayeri’s novel of Iranian exile, assimiliation

Dina Nayeri, author of "Refuge."

Dina Nayeri, author of "Refuge." Credit: Anna Leader

REFUGE, by Dina Nayeri. Riverhead, 322 pp., $27.

As Homer demonstrated, an immortal plot can spring from “a stranger comes to town.” And now the migrant story — a version of this narrative — is enjoying a literary surge. Consider three brilliant examples: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West.”

Aspiring to join these ranks is “Refuge,” a lush, brimming novel of exile by Dina Nayeri. “Have you forgotten the lemons like candy and the grasses that whistle and the lamb kabobs and salty corn on the roadside on the way to the Caspian Sea?” Nayeri writes. “Have you forgotten the music?”

Born amid the turmoil of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the author fled at age 10 with her mother and brother. They settled in Oklahoma, and Nayeri grew up to study at Princeton, Harvard and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her first novel, “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,” imagines if she had stayed.

She sets her new story along a charged father-daughter axis: Dr. Bahman Hamadi, a mesmerizing Iranian dentist and opium addict, forms a fierce attachment with his firstborn, Niloo. They “read ‘The Little Prince’ together and eat sour plums.” But at age 8, Niloo must leave Iran with her little brother and mother, whose Christianity has endangered her as Iran is radicalized.

Father and daughter meet just five times in the ensuing decades, in Oklahoma City, London, Madrid, Istanbul and finally Amsterdam.

The novel begins shrewdly with a comic chapter, “Dr. Hamadi’s Difficult Divorce.” In it, the aging, mustachioed patriarch attempts to coax an old mullah into granting him a third marital escape while his much younger wife pursues an agenda of her own.

Meanwhile, a grown Niloo exchanges a volley of nasty emails with this problematic third wife, then buries her daughterly worry and rage in an embroidered pillow. Her sensible husband asks, “Why did you engage with her? You wrap your mouth around the exhaust pipe of humanity and then you ask, ‘Why do I feel bad?’ ”

Niloo bristles: How, exactly, does her European husband define “the exhaust pipe of humanity”? That question is key to “Refuge,” a novel that had a political beginning, as Nayeri explains in an Author’s Note. The book takes its inspiration from the 2011 immolation suicide in a public Amsterdam square of an Iranian refugee who had languished in the Netherlands without papers for 11 years.

So grafted onto an intriguing father-daughter story is a more didactic and unsubtle one. Nayeri’s politics are leftist — she wrote an essay for the Guardian in April titled “The Ungrateful Refugee: ‘We Have No Debt to Repay,’ ” which has been shared more than 80,000 times. She makes this case more powerfully in the newspaper than in the novel.

Fiction readers must pick their way through bits of bombast to follow father and daughter, to find Farsi sprinkled on the pages and a cluster of lovely idioms. “Beware o wanderer,” states one, “the road is walking too.”

Nayeri, who cops to being similar to Niloo, writes a character desperate to shed the Midwest and graduate from Yale. Niloo carries a fraught soul and a comically outsized backpack deep into her adulthood. It symbolizes her ballast in the world, but also a weight that swallows her slender torso.

The writer dedicates “Refuge” to her “insatiable Persian family, a scattered village of poets and pleasure-seekers.” The company of their fictional versions is rewarding indeed.

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