THE WOMAN WHO READ TOO MUCH

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Gossip was rife in the capital about the poetess of Qazvin. Some claimed she had been arrested for masterminding the murder of the grand Mullah, her uncle. Others echoed her words, and passed her poems from hand to hand. Everyone spoke of her beauty, and her dazzling intelligence. But most alarming to the Shah and the court was how the poetess could read. As her warnings and predictions became prophecies fulfilled, about the assassination of the Shah, the hanging of the Mayor, and the murder of the Grand Vazir, many wondered whether she was not only reading history but writing it as well.

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Gossip was rife in the capital about the poetess of Qazvin. Some claimed she had been arrested for masterminding the murder of the grand Mullah, her uncle. Others echoed her words, and passed her poems from hand to hand. Everyone spoke of her beauty, and her dazzling intelligence. But most alarming to the Shah and the court was how the poetess could read. As her warnings and predictions became prophecies fulfilled, about the assassination of the Shah, the hanging of the Mayor, and the murder of the Grand Vazir, many wondered whether she was not only reading history but writing it as well. Was she herself guilty of the crimes she was foretelling?

Set in the world of the Qajar monarchs, mayors, ministers, and mullahs, this book explores the dangerous and at the same time luminous legacy left by a remarkable person. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani offers a gripping tale that is at once a compelling history of a pioneering woman, a story of nineteenth century Iran told from the street level up, and a work that is universally relevant to our times.

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  • Redwood Press
  • Hardcover
  • March 2015
  • 336 Pages
  • 9780804793254

Buy the Book

$24.00

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About Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani grew up in Uganda, was educated in the United Kingdom and the United States, and now lives in France. Her novels have been published in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, Russian, and Korean.

Praise

Nakhjavani displays a love of storytelling almost for its own sake.”

Literary Review

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is best—really very effective—when she writes of the sandstorms and delusions of our own imperfect Earth.”

The Washington Post

One of the year’s 10 best books to lose yourself in . . . Nakhjavani deftly transforms an incomplete history into legend. An ambitious effort produces an expertly crafted epic.”Kirkus Reviews

Nakhjavani's anachronistic style sets the novel apart from the bulk of contemporary literary fiction and adds immensely to its charm.”

Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions

What was the poetess’s crime? Challenging authority? Going against established gender roles? Or do you think she even committed a crime?

How does the “love” of the Mother for her son, the Shah, compare to the “love” of the father for the poetess of Qazvin? How do their relationships compare to the relationship between the poetess of Qazvin and her daughter?

Many characters find themselves confined: the Mother in the anderoun, the poetess in the Mayor’s house, the Shah in the mausoleum, the Vazir in the bathhouse. For the women, they still exercise power from their confinement. For the men, they often end up dead. What does this show about the sources of power and influence? Does this effect women and men differently?

Did you find the character of the corpse washer appealing or menacing? Or both? How does her character evolve throughout the story?

The British Envoy’s wife is one of three literate women. How does her life compare to the poetess of Qazvin's? Do they write for the same reasons? The Envoy’s wife is “Western” – what does that imply?

In what ways do silence, speech, and rumor shape the way the narrative progresses? Who keeps secrets? Who lies? What are their motivations? Is writing a form of “speech” or “silence”?

How is food woven into the storyline? In what ways does it affect the action?

How does the sequence that the events are revealed affect the way you perceived the characters? Does the author risk confusing the reader? If so, do you think it’s worth the risk?

In today’s news, we continue to hear stories about Muslim women and veiling, and gender roles and expectations in the East and West. What contemporary parallels do you see in the story of the poetess?