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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Négar Djavadi

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To purchase Disoriental

Title: Disoriental
Author: Négar Djavadi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 335 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Disoriental - US
Disoriental - UK
Disoriental - Canada
Désorientale - Canada
Disoriental - India
Désorientale - France
Desorientale - Deutschland
Desorientale - Italia
Desoriental - España
  • French title: Désorientale
  • Translated by Tina Kover

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing voice and interesting perspective on Iranian culture

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times B+ 18/5/2018 Catherine Taylor
Le Monde . 25/8/2016 Christine Rousseau
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/6/2018 Dalia Sofer
TLS . 20/7/2018 Natasha Lehrer
World Lit. Today . 5-6/2018 Poupeh Missaghi

  From the Reviews:
  • "Djavadi’s use of her adopted language is significant in a novel teeming with perspicacious observations and hypotheses on exile, statelessness and reshaping identity. Tina Kover’s dynamic translation into English is a high-wire act, capturing all the animation and vigour of a breathless narrative voice. (...) Though by no means a failure, the wildly persuasive expressiveness of the first half of Disoriental does flag during its second. Nevertheless, it is an absorbing, important and noteworthy counterpoint to western accounts of this period of Iran’s history and its abiding aftermath. " - Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

  • "Construit comme un disque vinyle, avec sa face A, épique et romanesque, et sa « petite sœur ingrate », sa face B, intimiste et politique, Désorientale séduit à plus d’un titre. Que ce soit par sa force narrative, tenue par un art consommé de la digression, des changements de ton et de rythme, que par la richesse de ses ­thèmes et la justesse de son regard critique, notamment sur la société française. Au point que l’on surprend à feuilleter de nouveau cet album de famille pour réentendre une voix qui nous enchante autant qu’elle nous étreint." - Christine Rousseau, Le Monde

  • "In her remarkable novel, Disoriental, Negar Djavadi (...) beautifully captures the "disorientation" of exile and the attempt to reconstruct a self through family stories. (...) If there is one element weighing down this rich novel (translated from the French by Tina Kover), it’s the exiled narrator’s compulsion to explain so much of her country’s past. The book contains not only extensive historical passages but also footnotes" - Dalia Sofer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The fragmented, impressionistic texture of the narrative mirrors the characters’ vertiginous sense of displacement, which is simultaneously geographical, political, social and historical (.....) Like the best kind of fable, it is a tale of the solace and constriction of tradition and the magic and danger of reinvention." - Natasha Lehrer, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The captivating story of a girl who grows into a woman dealing with the burdens of history on her country, her family, and herself, Disoriental offers so much to both non-Iranian and Iranian readers." - Poupeh Missaghi, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Disoriental begins with a brief prologue focused on ... escalators, the narrator discussing how her father, Darius Sadr, never took them. Only in the last two paragraphs does she mention something rather more dramatic, a: "bloody incident that happened in Paris", in 1994. As she admits:

     I mean, I could have led with that, you know. Instead of talking about escalators, I could have opened with the story of what we call THE EVENT in our family. But I can't. Not yet.
       Appropriately enough for a novel suggesting disorientation in its title, the narrator quickly throws readers off balance -- and continues to do so, at least in the early parts of the novel. As to THE EVENT -- or at least the revelation of what it involved -- that's a long, long way in coming.
       The novel proper then is divided into two parts, 'Side A' and 'Side B', like an old 45 rpm record, and keeps the reader guessing some more for a while. It opens in a Paris hospital waiting room, where narrator Kimiâ Sadr is waiting, and the entire 'Side A' part, some two-thirds of the novel, has her slowly make her way to and through her appointment, her narrative repeatedly returning to this slow-going present. But although that's the foreground story, the bulk of the narrative extends far beyond that, as Kimiâ describes her childhood in Iran, and her family and experiences there. ('Side A' of the novel centers on the first ten or so years of her life, in Iran, while 'Side B' focuses on the time after the family fled post-revolutionary Iran, settling in Paris.)
       The hospital is one specializing in medically-assisted procreation, and while it's soon clear that Kimiâ is waiting for an artificial insemination procedure, her circumstances long remain murky. There's a man involved -- Pierre -- but he's not present; the story she tells, to the medical authorities, is that they are planning to get married, but it doesn't seem like they are. And there's the question of why the procedure is so complicated, from the bureaucracy she has to deal with to the various forms of testing -- psychological and otherwise -- to the handling and preparation of the sperm.
       Kimiâ is the youngest -- by several years -- of three girls. Everyone was sure she would be a boy, and her father then even treated her, to some extent, as the son he never had, and in childhood she continued to enjoy playing outside with the boys rather than staying indoors like her older, more proper sisters. With her boyish body she doesn't really identify as a girl -- but, as she eventually realizes, that's a problem in this culture where:
The term "tomboy" doesn't exist; nor does any other term or word that recognizes that difference. You're a boy or a girl, and that's that.
       This proves problematic for Kimiâ, who doesn't slot quite that neatly into the expected gender roles -- but it's something that she comes to figure out in the more welcoming Paris atmosphere, where she finds herself fitting in much better than in her family's limited and rigid framework. And while she might not be tempted by most of the standards and expectations of femininity, there is one that she does strongly cling to: she wants to be a mother. Hence the fertility clinic, as ... seminal point in the story.
       The family is a large one -- father Darius has six brothers (and one unofficial -- i.e. illegitimate -- one), and they're referred to as the seven uncles, each by number (Darius would be number four). They go very different ways, with Darius the politically engaged journalist, forcing him and the family into hiding (of sorts -- with the big family, it's not that hard, at least initially, to stay more or less out of the way) and then abroad, after the 1979 Revolution. Politics also follow them abroad, to some extent -- and play a role in THE EVENT, when that is eventually revealed.
       Disoriental is something of a coming-of-age novel, and a novel of living in two very different cultures. The family members adapt to life in France in different ways, from the parents who clearly have a difficult time thinking of their time there as anything but temporary to the older sister who immerses herself completely in her studies, certain of her goals and ambitions and how to achieve them, to ultra-rebellious Kimiâ, going determinedly her own way already while still in high school.
       At one point, Kimiâ suggests, about making the move and transition from Iran to France, that it's not so much about integration:
Because to integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate.
       Kimiâ does this to a greater extent than the others in her family, already in her teen years, and much of the novel does look at the aspects of these two cultures that she is confronted with and how she chooses, at different times, to reject and embrace them.
       There are some predictable phases, such as the encounter with music when Kimiâ reaches adolescence, and the role it comes to play:
Music bridges the gap between the past and the present; childhood and adolescence; what has been and will be. A new world has opened up for me, where it is better to be clever and resourceful than to have money.
       Fortunately, Kimiâ doesn't go on too long or make too much of these phases and everything they involve, and mostly just covers them matter of factly and quite quickly: among the more appealing aspects of Disoriental is that it mostly avoids too much self-indulgence. Occasionally, however, the approach doesn't work as well, the reserve holding too much back -- so, in particular, with THE EVENT. While understandably a difficult trauma to deal with, it occupies a strange place in the novel, built up from near the beginning (with that all-caps alert) but then not dealt with nearly as extensively as one might have expected; even the sense of how/that Kimiâ is still working through it feels somewhat underdeveloped.
       Disoriental hooks the reader quickly with Kimiâ's appealing voice and a slight air of mystery -- though it can't quite live up to the promise that is hinted at in what is left, at first, unsaid. In many ways, Disoriental is pretty standard personal-family-fare, the story one of a big family with its own quirks, political unrest in the background (that the protagonist is too young to really understand), being uprooted and then taking to a different culture with a vengeance, some sexual confusion. Djavadi's fairly laid-back style is quite appealing -- but also gives the book a more pedestrian feel than the magnitude of some of these circumstances might have allowed for: at times it can almost feel like she's simply checking off the various significant events and changes. Not that there aren't moments of suspense and poignancy, but given the setting, times, and circumstances (revolutionary Iran ! a family in hiding ! a dangerous escape ! a teen on the streets of Paris ! a complicated fertility treatment !), it feels surprisingly commonplace -- no big deal.
       There's certainly enough of interest and appeal here, and there are some creative touches to the presentation, right down to the use of a few footnotes (albeit too often relying on or pointing to Wikipedia), and the glimpse of pre- and then revolutionary Iran and Iranian culture is quite interesting. But it feels like a whole lot more could be made of this story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 April 2018

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Disoriental: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Négar Djavadi was born in Iran in 1969 and moved to France when she was eleven.

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