Aria by Nassim Assefi
The letters in Nassim Assefi's epistolary novel Aria create a heartbreaking travelogue of grief and despair. Jasmine, an Iranian American oncologist, writes to her family and friends as she seeks solace in Guatemala, Tibet, and Iran. In each country, she grieves anew for her five-year-old daughter, the eponymous Aria, who was killed in a car accident back in Seattle. The emotion Jasmine pours into her letters is raw, and at times even baroque. But this one short letter, addressed to her daughter, handles her emotion in a quieter way. It made me catch my breath:
Happy sixth birthday, my sweetest of sweetie pies.
Mama misses you and loves you so much.
I promise to find you very, very soon.
P.S. Please give me a hint about where you are.
In contrast to Jasmine’s other letters -- diligent notes to her best friend Dottie and lover Alexander -- this one shows how lost Jasmine is. How desperate she is to play with her daughter, to lure her back from the underworld. And this notion of “hiding” is poignant because Aria was struck down while running across the street during a game of hide-and-seek; she remains hidden to Jasmine.
Jasmine’s travels translate into three phases, each with its own mission. She heads to work in fields of maize in Guatemala; practices meditation in a solitary cave above a Buddhist nunnery in Tibet; mourns and exchanges stories with her large extended family in Tehran. In this way, Aria is a tougher, bleaker Eat, Pray, Love. In that passionate memoir, Elizabeth Gilbert, fresh from a painful divorce, tackles Italy, India, and Indonesia, looking for pleasure, asceticism, and finally, balance. Gilbert finds what she’s looking for. But Jasmine, more often than not, keeps searching, her desires frustrated.
Interlaced through these letters is the story of Mamani Joon, Jasmine’s grandmother, a sly, vibrant woman whose sorrows are remarkably similar to Jasmine’s own. Mamani Joon starts sneaking cigarettes and poetry at age ten; she heals (and falls in love with) the leader of a tribe at 15. Later in life, she tricks Jasmine into learning Persian by pretending that she doesn’t understand English. She is a light and a guide in this dark novel, a fully human presence. A vision of Mamani Joon leads Jasmine back to Iran, to her estranged family and old rituals of mourning, where she can finally locate peace.
Jasmine’s letters, which can be warm and vivid, can also be clunky and strained. Assefi explains too much, an understandable mistake for a debut author. Jasmine describes herself in labor as having “deep-throated cries” -- this might be an apt description, but it is an unlikely self-description. Amusing mixed metaphors also crop up: Jasmine chides her mother: “You never... let your child fly with the wings and roots you provided.”
For its thick sheaf of themes -- grief, estrangement, the power of storytelling, the commingling of the bitter and sweet -- Aria has only a handful of notes. Dottie and Alexander recall special moments with Aria and comment on Jasmine’s grief, but offer very little of their own lives. By the end of the novel, we can see Aria. She’s a playful, loving, curious five-year-old (with wild hair and a secret love of Tootsie Rolls)... but many of the others seem rather wan in comparison.
Assefi has a great grasp of her material -- she is capable of conjuring up a Tibetan sky burial as well as a Seattle emergency room. She illuminates the tenacity of grief, and offers cultural insights into the nature of mourning. Here’s hoping her next book is an opera, large enough to contain her many themes. Here’s hoping her next novel is an epic.
Aria by Nassim Assefi