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Friday, July 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Love, upheaval in family's life in Iran, U.S.

Seattle Times book critic

Noor Ellahi, the narrator of Nahid Rachlin's new novel, "Jumping Over Fire" (City Lights, 261 pp., $12.95), has grown up in Iran — but she scarcely feels Iranian.

With her long blond hair and pale complexion, she doesn't look Iranian either (her mother is an American who married an Iranian doctor). She uses an American name, Nora, along with her Iranian name. All her focus is on American culture. She's torn between two worlds, and so is her family, to varying degrees.

None of them pray, observe Ramadan or have any interest in religion. Noor's adoptive brother Jahan, as a young Iranian male, enjoys a freedom of movement that is denied his sister. But his fate is still tied to his family's — and they, clearly, are living in a cultural bubble isolated from the rest of Iran.

That bubble is the Iranian American Oil Co. compound ("a classic colonial enclave") in the southern Iranian city of Masjid-e-Suleiman. Its streets have American names ("Elm Avenue," "Washington Avenue"), its local cinema plays old American movie classics, its houses are in the "grand Tudor style," and many of its inhabitants are American or English.

The Iranian American Oil Co. compound is, in part, a product of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime, and it's in increasing peril. The time is the late 1970s, and the shah's hold over his country is getting shakier by the week. The Ellahis have quietly acknowledged the shah's abuses of power, but accepted the status quo that allows them to live in luxurious quarters with a number of servants. Now, as protests turn to revolution, they belatedly realize they'll have to flee their own country.

The United States is their natural choice of refuge, given Noor's mother's nationality. But how well will they adapt there? More to the point, what will become of the intense, clandestine, semi-incestuous love affair that Noor and Jahan started in their teens? And why does Jahan look so much like his adoptive father?

As these last two questions suggest, "Jumping Over Fire" is a political novel with a strong dose of "Wuthering Heights" blended into it. Iranian-American author Rachlin has alighted on some potent subject matter here, but her treatment of it isn't always satisfying. Still, the book has its strong points, especially as it chronicles the chaos into which Iran tumbles and the swift evaporation of its citizens' personal freedoms. Rachlin is good, too, on the unwillingness of the adults around Noor to believe just how untenable their lives in Iran have become.

Author appearance

Nahid Rachlin will read from "Jumping Over Fire" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

The difficulties the Ellahis have in doing their own chores once they're living servantless in the U.S. ring true, too — but might have been addressed with more bite. The whole family, especially the two parents, can seem awfully shallow at times, intent as they are on re-

acquiring fancy cars and other status symbols of their former life as fast as they can. But that may be Rachlin's point — that not all refugees from Khomeini's Iran were saints.

The oddball out in the family is Jahan, an aspiring artist whose failure to adapt to American life and burgeoning interest in Islam (nicely handled — you never quite know where it's going) precipitates a family crisis. The erotic connection between Jahan and Noor, which has to be kept secret, only adds to the pressures on his behavior. Noor's career dream of becoming a lawyer is another complication.

With all the volatile ingredients that have gone into it, "Jumping Over Fire" ought to be gut-wrenching, or at least powerful and eloquent. Instead, it's merely interesting. The main culprits here are abrupt transitions, problems with continuity and a prose that can be flat or even clichéd. Rachlin also has a tendency to spell out things so baldly that there's little animating mystery left to them. What you see is what you get.

Given the history and the social upheavals being portrayed here, however, "what you get" can often be enough.

Michael Upchurch:

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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