Winter In Tabriz by Sheila Llewellyn | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction | Literary Fiction

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Winter In Tabriz by Sheila Llewellyn is published with Sceptre and is described as ‘gripping and atmospheric’. The novel draws on Sheila Llewellyn’s own experience of living in Tabriz, through the winter of 1978, during the last chaotic months before the revolution took hold in January 1979.

The history of Iran is very much unknown to me but in recent times I have watched Joanna Lumley and Anthony Bourdain both convey their own thoughts and feelings about the country in their respective television programmes. I was very taken aback by the beauty of many of the locations featured but I also found it a little disconcerting at times. Earlier this year I read the unique and passionate The Immortals of Tehran by Iranian author, Ali Araghi, which centred on the social and political upheaval and unrest in Iran. Using magical realism, Ali Araghi explores the turbulent years of the revolution and gave me a unique insight into those chaotic years of Iran’s chequered history. What is very interesting is that both Ali Araghi and Sheila Llewellyn focus on characters with literary and poetic backgrounds as their main protagonists.

Winter in Tabriz was a novel I was very much looking forward to as I knew from the outset that I was about to experience a very authentic novel. The major appeal for me was that Sheila Llewellyn lived in Tabriz in the 1970s so this book was written from first-hand knowledge. Although a fictional novel, Winter in Tabriz reads like a memoir.

Damian is UK born, to Irish parents, and following his studies in Oxford he takes up a six-month research position in Berkeley University, California. Damian has struggled for years with his sexuality. As an academic achiever he was left alone, with no expectations on him to bring home a girlfriend and this protected him in his school going years. In Oxford there was more acceptance of the gay community among his peers but Damian kept a very discreet profile. Going to Berkeley felt like a good move for Damian opening up possibilities for him but Damian did not live what he terms ‘the gay Bay life’ and soon the loneliness impacted his days. A chance meeting on Berkeley campus with Arash, an Iranian poet, changes the course of Damian’s life forever.

“The Berkeley gay scene was lively, and San Francisco, the gay centre of the world, was only half an hour away. Underneath all my dismissive bravado about ‘the gay Bay life’, I was pathetically lonely. So I think I can rightly say I was a mess until I met Arash”

Arash was a postgrad student at Berkeley in library information services, following his studies of Persian literature at university in Tabriz and other work experience that facilitated this opportunity to study in the US. The connection between Damian and Arash was instant and, although they remained careful in public, when together their relationship blossomed into something very unique. Arash and Damian were both sensitive individuals with a common passion for words. They discovered each other and fell in love. But Arash had to return to Iran, to Tabriz and Damian made the difficult decision to pack his bags and follow him. Both knew that they would face insurmountable and extremely dangerous obstacles in Tabriz but they really had no concept of how bad things would get. Arash’s brother Reza is very much in touch with the political situation in Iran. He is aware of the growing relationship between his brother and Damian and is rightly concerned for their safety.

As unrest raised its head and the voice of Ayatollah Khomeini got louder, a new order was forming and Iranian society was set to embark on a very turbulent path.

During his time in Tabriz, Damian was to have a new housemate, Anna, also an Oxford grad. Anna has her own story to tell, which is recounted in diary form through the novel, tainted with an emotional resonance.

“She didn’t get to Tabriz until March 1978, six months or so after me, but her reasons for finding herself there have a surprising resonance with mine. Strange both of us starting off in Oxford at roughly the same time, Anna two years before me, and then the two of us ending up in Tabriz sharing the same house. Not exactly the Oxford glittering-prize career path expected of either of us. And by the sound of it, it was a similar random set of choices to mine that led her there”

As Anna settled into her new life as a researcher at the university she soon realised that life for women in Tabriz and Iran was going to change in extraordinary fashion. Where one could previously meet friends, uncovered and without fear, now Anna was warned to cover up and be mindful of where she went at all times. Work in the university was sparse and Anna began to wonder was this move a wise one. For personal reasons she had needed this change to her structure, her day, but was Iran a prudent move during such turbulent times?

Through the use of journal entries and memories, Sheila Llewellyn brings Damian, Anna, Arash and Reza very much alive to the reader. Winter in Tabriz documents the dramatic change, the fear, the instability and the horror for many during those inciteful days of Iran’s revolution. Winter in Tabriz is an extraordinary novel about a prohibited love, exceptionally atmospheric on every page. The literary world is incredibly depicted as its words became a source of danger for those holding the pen. A remarkable tale,Winter in Tabriz is an intense reading experience capturing a period of history that changed Iran forever. An eloquent and passionate novel, Winter in Tabriz will remain with me for some time. Quite simply beautiful….

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.

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