You can judge a book by its cover, to an extent. You can also, maybe to an even greater extent, judge a book by its title. Debut novelist Ava Farmehri borrows this one from Dante, and subsequently presents a work that lives up to its impact.
Sheyda Porrouya, a twenty-year-old Iranian born at the time of her country’s transition to an Islamic republic, has been charged with killing her mother, confessed to the crime and been sentenced to death. All this information is given early on in the book, and it presents a weird juxtaposition for the reader. If there’s any doubt that the political reality of being a woman in post-’70s Iran will come into play within the pages of Farmehri’s book, having Sheyda’s birthday correspond with the beginning of a new era of social conservatism and female oppression would seem to clear that mystery right up. It might be easy, therefore, to see Sheyda primarily as a victim, if it weren’t for the fact that she may also be a murderer.
Through the Sad Wood Our Corpses Will Hang stacks up the hallmarks of an enticing suspense novel, as well as those of a well-argued sociopolitical statement, and playfully, languidly knocks them over, batting expectations around as the reader becomes entranced and forgets what they came to this text for, exactly, how they came to be rolling around in this strange, cruel and enrapturing world in the first place. We see Sheyda in prison, adapting to her new environment and the reality of her death sentence, but we’re frequently pushed back into her memories. In time, those memories unfurl with such brilliant abandon that it becomes easy to forget about the thread of the plot doggedly pushing its way through the alternating darkness and brightness of our main character’s childhood and adolescence.
As we watch Sheyda’s life through her recollections, we may keep looking for clues that reveal what’s to come, but this isn’t quite that kind of game. The clues that are present are almost too obvious: On a trip with her family, she tosses a bucketful of fish her father has caught back into the sea, wanting to save their lives. On the same trip, she experiments with letting herself drown, convinced that God will save her. At another point, she cuts open her teddy bear with a pair of scissors and tries to shove herself inside of it. One night shortly after, she’s caught standing over her sleeping mother with scissors, thereby earning herself a long course of therapy. Aside from this obsession she has with the power of being able to give or take life, her past world is full of relatively normal details that nevertheless sparkle crisp and fresh in the mind of the convicted woman and on Farmehri’s pages.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of “warning” details, too. The tensions present in Sheyda’s family, particularly those linked with her mother’s looming unhappiness, are shown in a number of ways, including her mother’s refusal to celebrate any birthday, beginning with her thirtieth. But these are presented against a backdrop of such rich descriptions of the surrounding world—the sights and sounds of the neighborhood where the family lives, the smells of cooking, songs and stories, trips taken through busy streets, past snow-capped mountains—that it’s easy to read much of the book as though it contains a different kind of story, as if it’s not going to eventually swing back to a girl in her prison cell awaiting execution. If it seemed like this were a deliberate trick meant to demonstrate to the reader that a relatively safe life can turn through a series of misfortunes or that, in a world run by men, women are automatically subject to any number of cruelties the moment they stray from a given path, the overall effect would be cheaper. But the absurdities in Through the Sad Wood Our Corpses Will Hang emerge naturally, and, as a result, both of those truths are made convincing without strain.
What may seem at first to be lacking from Farmehri’s novel is a sense of dread. Its suspense is mainly embedded in the question of Sheyda’s guilt or innocence, and as the story stretches on, the validity and straightforwardness of this question begin to fracture. Sheyda’s interactions with both of her parents, her lovesick obsession with a man who lives across the street from her family, an aunt she briefly bonds with over the woman’s own romantic longing and a pranking incident with an unpleasant neighbor all seem to contribute to and foreshadow her eventual imprisonment, but they also raise the question of whether her current predicament is the most important thing happening to her. Through the Sad Wood uses the trappings of a plot-driven thriller to wax philosophical, and gets away with it. I’ve read a few books recently that involve the horrific descending into ordinary modern life, Hye-young Pyun’s The Hole and Tariq Goddard’s Nature and Necessity among them, and this book almost takes the opposite approach. It starts with something bleak and frightening, then peels back the curtain to reveal everything human underneath.
I was initially distressed by an impulse I had to draw a connection between this novel and Camus’ The Stranger. L’Étranger, after all, is about a socially detached young man, an Algerian pied-noir who lands himself in a world of trouble for not looking sufficiently sad at his mother’s funeral and then murdering an Arab man, and it’s famously (though not even close to exclusively) read by other such socially detached young men who have the time and luxury of sitting around thinking about how everything is meaningless and nothing really matters. Why draw a comparison from this book to one about a disaffected Iranian girl, as if the glaring cultural and societal differences aren’t obvious?
However, it’s letting those differences trump the main idea that would actually be shortsighted. Who says a young Iranian woman can’t take such luxuries of thought for herself? Can’t feel social contempt as strongly, more strongly, even, than danger to her own body and being? Who says she can’t, through carelessness and disregard for societal norms in the face of her mother’s death, land herself in a prison cell where she passes the days before her execution fumbling towards some elusive sense of freedom and dismissing a loving or all-powerful deity as irrelevant? There are, you see, similarities.
Farmehri breaks out vivid poetic flourishes every so often but doesn’t stretch this style too thin, often veering more towards plain-spoken language. This latter approach flirts with a kind of bullheaded adolescent aesthetic that creates another interesting comparison with popular literary culture; it might be tempting to criticize Sheyda in the same way many have expressed frustration with the main character in Catcher in the Rye and his steadfast refusal to, in so many words, shut up and get a life. In a way, Sheyda’s sweeping statements about life and people in general are not so different from Holden Caulfield’s rants about “phonies.” Like with Holden, it could be argued that, despite the factors working against her since birth, Sheyda is responsible for her current situation and that she continues to act against her own best interest.
The main difference between Sheyda and the classic young male narrators she may evoke comparison to, however, is that she’s engaged with her own story even when trying to escape it. She isn’t where she is because the sun got in her eyes or she got fed up with phonies…or is she? It would, again, be presumptuous to think her above or oblivious to problems of this ilk, but she’s not so much sitting back and contemplating the void as attempting to dive headfirst into it. She even invents an altar ego for herself, an Italian Catholic girl named Beatrice, but eventually has the misfortune of running into a cab driver who really speaks Italian, a realization that causes her to vomit (which seems like an insult from the one and only physical universe rushing back to thwart her). She always seems to be getting caught in a lie, even if it’s an inconsequential one, like claiming to her father to have seen a black cat who he in turn claims to have made up—a telling moment as it reveals that, either way, he’s as big a liar as she.
As it’s been established that Sheyda does lie sometimes, she may be stacking on a few for us as well, or she may be delusional. As the story we’re treated to is entirely her own, however, it reveals a strong outline of her self to us either way. It also connects us with large-scale questions about life and death, the ones that seem so ever-present and clichéd that it’s easy to forget about how they actually pertain to us, our bodies and our lives. Through the Sad Wood shows that questions of life and death are always attached to the messy, ever-present mystery of real human consciousness. They can never be pondered in a vacuum.
I find myself wondering whether it’s society or life itself that Sheyda really finds impossible to contend with, and this question seems unanswerable within the bounds of this particular work. That’s not to say that the novel shies away from depicting the dangers and consequences of being female in a society that offers few protections for women (it definitely doesn’t) but that the concept of life, to Sheyda, is inseparable from the stuff of her own life, as it is for all of us. At the same time, her narrative is anything but claustrophobic—her consciousness is everywhere at once, zooming in and out of family pictures, looking at the sky above, preparing to soar into oblivion. Birds and flying imagery emerge again and again.
As its title suggests, Farmehri’s novel is never far from the corporeal, but it demonstrates that the tangible world permits and even suggests leaps of imagination, and that as humans, our forays into philosophy can never be entirely abstract. Sheyda reminds us that everyone is trapped in their body, but she does so in a way that at times feels surprisingly warm and liberating, even when she speaks of her doubts about the possibility of death—or, in fact, anything—bringing freedom. Whether or not you believe what she’s telling you, it’s hard to look away from what she has to show you.