The prologue of Dina Nayeri’s “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea” (Riverhead Books, 423 pages, $27.95) could stand alone as a suspenseful and powerful short story. In those opening pages, we learn “the sum of all that Saba Hafezi remembers from the day her mother and twin sister flew away forever, maybe to America, maybe to somewhere even farther out of reach.”
Saba, a young girl in Iran in 1981, doesn’t have a clear recollection of what occurred that day at the airport. She only knows that she was left behind. The loss of her mother and twin — and the nature of that loss — are at the heart of Nayeri’s debut novel, a lovely, textured story of a strong-willed, dream filled girl in a country where neither trait is valued by the ruling religious order.
Nayeri — who was born in Iran during the revolution, immigrated to the United States when she was 10, and is enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — layers her story with multiple perspectives and slowly revealed truths. As her protagonist dreams of America — dreams she constructs from contraband books, music, videos, and magazines — the American reader is given a vision of day-to-day Iranian life and its strictures.
Just as we see that Saba doesn’t have a full picture of American life, Nayeri subtly reminds us that a single novel can’t capture the full complexity of Iran. Nevertheless, this is a novel of great scope despite its tight focus on one woman’s life. Nayeri beautifully expands her central story by having other women in her life offer commentary and clarifications.
The book may well remind readers of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner.” Published by the same house as Hosseini’s story of Afghanistan, “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,” illuminates a country and the hopes of those who fervently wish for more freedom and opportunity.