By Dina Nayeri
Riverhead Books, $27
Many of the characters in Dina Nayeri’s second novel, “Refuge,” are estranged from themselves, but none more so than its protagonist, Niloo. When we meet her at 30, she has willed her world into one of orderly precision and hospital corners; she’s an anxious striver, a workhorse, a maker of lists.
“Wanna show you love me? Waste some time,” her husband, Gui, writes to her in a teasing email. “Have some pointless fun with all that crazy energy.”
Once, Niloo was capable of such things. The hardened crust she has developed is adaptive, meant to protect her from that “forever refugee feeling” of suspicion that she’s unwelcome wherever she goes. Never mind her Yale degree. Never mind her French and American passports. (Gui was raised in New York and Provence.) At 8 years old, she left Iran. It was the last time she experienced joy. It was also the last time she shared a home with her father. She has seen him just four times over the course of the last 22 years.
The strains and indignities that come with remaking a life are what give “Refuge” poignancy and relevance. The world is now flooded with the displaced, and the countries best positioned to receive them are increasingly hostile. In Amsterdam, where much of the novel takes place, real-life politician Geert Wilders makes several appearances, fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment: “You will not make the Netherlands home.”
If displacement demands accommodations of personality, so does remaining in a country run by a brutal autocrat. Niloo’s father, one of the most exciting reasons to read this book — he’s a dentist, an atheist and, above all, a hedonist, an exuberant devotee of opium and poetry and drink — feels terrible shame about his passivity in Ahmadinejad’s Iran. But he’s too afraid to uproot, “unable to leave behind his practice, his reputation, his warm village.”
What we learn about the specifics of opium addiction in this book — “ei vai,” as Nayeri’s characters say. Oh dear.
So the story of Niloo’s dispersed clan unfolds, with scenes in Oklahoma, where Niloo seeks asylum with her mother and brother; in Iran, where Niloo’s father is embroiled in an impressively nasty divorce; in the Netherlands, where Niloo’s own marriage suffers as her buried identity reasserts itself; and in the various cities where Niloo sees her father those four times.
Their visits are some of the most painful episodes in the book. Each time, Niloo’s father cannot reconcile the serious person in front of him with the happy and mischievous girl he once knew, or make the proper mental adjustments to account for her maturation. When, at 14, she recoils from his touch, as teenagers are wont to do, he squirms in distress. “He looked straight ahead, hungrily chewing his mustache,” Nayeri writes.
Niloo, for her part, finds her father embarrassing. She flinches every time he makes a pungent goulash of the English language. “Miss, please come with the quickness,” he tells a waitress in London, hoping to order another 11 a.m. beer.
Nayeri’s prose can be rich and colorful; it can also be florid, melodramatic — she sometimes writes with a heavy hand as well as a heavy heart. Opium addiction becomes an over-chewed metaphor for the lulling security of one’s native home. Niloo’s omnipresent backpack becomes a crude symbol of insecurity in one’s adopted country.
And Gui, clueless though he may be about Niloo’s suffering, is far too saintly.
But “Refuge” also has the kind of immediacy commonly associated with memoir, which lends it heft, intimacy, atmosphere. The novel may indulge in a few purple paragraphs too many. But that won’t stop many readers from responding to it with affection — and perhaps recognition.