Fiction Review by Kara Abdolmaleki

Mehri Yalfani, A Palace in Paradise (Toronto: Inanna, 2019).
Paperbound, 136 pp., $19.95.

A Palace in Paradise by Mehri YalfaniA Palace in Paradise tells the all‐too‐familiar story of countless Iranians in Canada, with their memories, past lives, hopes and dreams, sorrows, regrets, and traumas. The places, the relations, and the settings are all too familiar for any Iranian immigrant who escaped the tumultuous 1980s in Iran, the decade of a devastating eight‐year‐long war with Iraq (with millions of casualties and lives turned upside down) and a brutal ideological crackdown after the revolution.

In Iran, where everything is hyper‐politicized, the generation born in the 70s and 80s is referred to as the “burnt generation.” It was this generation that joined the numerous dissident groups, mostly inspired by Marxist or Islamic ideologies, or a combination of the two, and revolted against the Pahlavi dynasty. The price paid was extremely high: many were prosecuted, tortured, and killed; countless families were torn apart. Ironically, it took only a few years after the revolution for this generation to find itself in a position very similar to before the revolution. This time, though, persecution came from the Islamic Republic, as it sought to assert its totalizing authority.

Yalfani’s characters resemble people all Iranians have in their extended family: former political prisoners, refugees living in Europe and North America, the executed, and finally the Tavabs (“the repentant,” political dissidents turned collaborators in prison). The lives of these children of war and of the revolution now intersect in diaspora, in Toronto, the largest Iranian community in Canada. To Iranian‐Canadians, Toronto is a microcosm, a glimpse into Iran’s future in which, free from the yoke of oppression, they are left with the ruins of their lives and the tattered social fabric that now needs to be somehow repaired. Yalfani has masterfully painted a vista that conveys that suspicion and fear within Toronto’s miniature Iran.

As in many immigrant communities, Yalfani’s characters come to realize that their escape has been merely physical; their ghosts, their psychological wounds, their aching hearts, cannot be left behind. The story of A Palace in Paradise is one of coming to terms with the purgatory of immigration, of belonging neither to the homeland nor quite to the new home country, despite all its kindness and its beauty. The characters each enter gradually and reveal their past lives through lengthy monologues placed inside dialogues. At other times, Yalfani’s semi‐omniscient narrator develops the characters or delineates their relationships. This takes away from the literariness of the work, turning it instead into a series of autobiographical nuggets gathered up by the story.

Another consequence of this way of storytelling is that, except briefly, the reader is not free to interpret anything; no unspoken emotions, no unclear fates, and no open‐endedness. And even though the author creates an ending resembling Joyce’s Araby or Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, she brings everything to light, explaining that Nadereh will leave Parvaneh’s letters unanswered.

The urge to ensure the reader “gets it right” might be due to the fact that the story of Iranian immigrants in Canada is little‐known. Yalfani’s main concern might have been verisimilitude. At any rate, while reading, one cannot help but think that the scenes could have been more effectively dramatized using a third‐person objective narrator.

This lack of dramatic effect impacts Yalfani’s character development. This is especially true for the interaction between Goodarz and Nadereh in High Park: Goodarz tells Nadereh an extremely traumatic story that has long haunted him, but the story is like a short speech and Nadareh’s reaction is even more implausible. The relationship between the two is unconvincing, mainly because Goodarz is portrayed as aloof, uninterested in Nadereh’s life. So when the story of how he has fallen in love with Nadereh is revealed, it contradicts the Goodarz that we have come to know.

We witness Yalfani’s talent as a writer when Mahan reminisces about his forbidden attraction to Nadereh, or the few pages before Ferdous commits suicide. In the former, the story transforms into a free association of scenes from the past and the present. In the latter, Ferdous’s trauma is artfully expressed by the tapping of Frida’s shoes over Ferdous’s memories of torture and execution. Reading these pages, one wonders why such a brilliant, poignant, and befitting style of narration was not employed earlier, or more often. Despite the limitations noted, A Palace in Paradise is essential reading for anyone who would like to gain piercing insight into the hearts and minds of Iranians in Canada. It also serves as a call to Iranian‐Canadians to heal
and slowly begin picking up the pieces of our lives.


—Kara Abdolmaleki

As in The Malahat Review, 214, spring 2021