Beauty, but at What Cost?

By Donna Rifkind,
who often reviews fiction for Book World
Tuesday, August 7, 2007


By Anita Amirrezvani

Little, Brown. 377 pp. $23.99

Anita Amirrezvani's first novel is about the costs and consolations of beauty, and is itself so picturesque that it often seems a striking variation on its own theme. Set in 17th-century Persia, the book imagines the life of a talented young female carpetmaker during a golden age of artisanship.

In the 1620s, the Persian capital of Isfahan had a larger population than London or Paris. Of the period's global cities only Constantinople had more residents, inspiring the proverb that Isfahan was "half the world." Its design was exuberantly redeveloped by Shah Abbas the Great, a firm-handed monarch with a passion for urban planning and the decorative arts, who collected the finest architects, calligraphers, engineers, tilemakers and filigree artists to construct its marvels. These included lavishly ornamented mosques, broad avenues, bridges, magnificent gardens and the enormous public square known as the "Image of the World," many of whose features, including some of the goal posts from its polo grounds, can still be seen today.

Amirrezvani follows the fortunes of an impoverished woman and her daughter who have journeyed to Isfahan from a remote mountain village after the untimely death of her husband. They are taken in by a charitable relative, a renowned carpet designer in the shah's court. The 15-year-old daughter, who narrates the story, has shown a raw talent for knotting carpets since early childhood and is inspired by the grand specimens in her uncle's workshop. She remains unnamed throughout the book, as the author explains in an afterword, "in tribute to the anonymous artisans of Iran." But there is nothing anonymous about this girl's voice. Amirrezvani, who was born in Tehran and raised in the United States, infuses her heroine with lilting eloquence as she confides her bedazzled impressions of the fabled city.

These include scenes of poverty side by side with luxury. "I stared at rich women with silk chadors strolling slowly over the bridge in their wooden-heeled shoes, which raised them above the ground," the young narrator observes, "while poor women shuffled along in dirty cotton rags wrapped around their feet." A destitute lodger in her wealthy uncle's manor, she bestrides this double world, working with her mother as an unpaid servant and sharing a tiny room near the latrine.

In some ways her lowly status confers a degree of freedom. Covered from head to toe in a heavy white chador and picheh (hood), she is permitted to explore Isfahan and even to befriend the daughter of a prominent neighboring family. Most important, after her uncle notices her interest in rugmaking, he begins to teach her about design and allows her to practice knotting her own carpets when her long hours of kitchen chores are done. Without these consolations, this girl's life would be one of nearly total disenfranchisement. Lacking a dowry, she can't hope for financial security through a respectable marriage. At the urging of her uncle's opportunistic wife, she reluctantly agrees to enter into a sigheh, or temporary contractual union, with the son of a prosperous horse trader, who buys her sexual services for a modest fee in renewable three-month installments. The contract cedes almost all power to the man, who remains free to marry another, more permanent, wife, leaving the temporary bride burdened with the shame of a legally acceptable but socially unsavory arrangement.

For all the disparities of privilege here -- between men and women, rich and poor -- Amirrezvani's book dwells less on the restrictions of gender or class than on the liberating power of art. "Our response to cruelty, suffering, and sorrow is to remind the world of the face of beauty," the girl's uncle advises during a lesson on carpet design. There are many lessons here detailing precisely how Persian carpets are made: Rarely woven, they are created by thousands (or sometimes millions) of tiny individual knots of silk or wool. The inspiration for their intricate, multi-layered designs comes most often from the natural world -- gardens in particular -- and has a strong religious dimension: No human figures are permitted, in accordance with the laws of the Koran.

Because the carpets are almost never signed, their creators remain mostly unknown. The narrator recounts stories of women and children who spend years making knots until their limbs are twisted and their eyes worn out. "All our labors were in service of beauty," she muses, "but sometimes it seemed as if every thread in a carpet had been dipped in the blood of flowers." Is this art worth such sacrifice? Interestingly, the author, who is a former dance critic, argues most effectively for art's sake not through plot or character but through a series of artful tableaux: women congregating in a public bath; merchants haggling in the city's great bazaar; teeming slums and serene pleasure palaces; "turquoise and lemon domes basking in the morning light." Enduring and dynamic, these living pictures turn a conventional historical novel into a more rarefied object, like a fine old carpet.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company