Throughout To Keep the Sun Alive, a new release by debut novelist, Rabeah Ghaffari, stories from the long history of Iran are exchanged between family members and neighbors. The tales are of power struggles between the weak and the strong, and most often in these stories the weak triumph over the strong. The tales are demonstrative, issuing either a threat or lesson to the listener. Though the tales do not always serve the same purpose in the narrative, they all represent a dichotomy between story and mortality. Stories live on, people do not.
The book opens in Paris in 2012; we meet Shazdehpoor who ekes out a living by writing tourists’ names for them in his native Persian. It is the morning of a solar eclipse, the rare occasion wherein the moon totally covers the sun, creating dark in the daytime, and Shazdehpoor is on edge. The narrative transitions to Iran in 1978, an Iran on the brink of revolution. From there, the narrative remains mostly in Iran, but occasionally visits Shazdehpoor in 2012 as he falls apart in the face of the eclipse. In Iran, we meet Bibi and her family as they are sitting down to lunch in the family’s ancient orchard. Although she has no biological children of her own, she presides over several generations of family--her niece, Ghamar, and her family; Shazdehpoor, who we learn is Bibi’s husband’s nephew, and his two sons; and her brother-in-law.
The characters are complicated in the most wonderfully normal ways--they are falling in love, fighting with their spouses, grieving loved ones, finding their roles within their families--but within these day-to-day narrative threads, the tension of revolution is palpable on each page. Bibi’s husband, Akbar, and his brother, Habib, stand on firmly opposite sides politically. Habib is a cleric and staunch believer that Islam should influence politics. Akbar is a retired judge and believes in a world governed apart from religion. As the revolution draws closer to home, members of the family find themselves farther and farther apart.
The day the revolution fully arrives in their small town in Iran is, again, the same day as a full solar eclipse. The book plays heavily with dichotomies of this sort--light and dark, good and evil, story and mortality--and the eclipse symbolizes just how quickly light turns to dark, how sudden day becomes night.
To Keep the Sun Alive is about the 1979 Iranian Revolution, yes, but more than that it is about memory. In a literal sense, the book is structured around Shazdehpoor’s memories of the 1978 eclipse on the day of the eclipse in 2012. He remembers the tragedy, and the events leading up to it, that tore his family apart. But the book is also about the long memory of history. The younger generation of Bibi’s family believe that their slice of the present will change everything, but the older generations, with story, try to warn of history’s tendency to repeat itself. There will always be another eclipse, the sun and moon are ceaselessly cyclical.
To Keep the Sun Alive is a powerful book. Readers will be invested in the characters, will be hoping that history might rewrite itself for their sake. It also manages to be self-aware in its recognition of the power of story. You will be gripped by the narrative as it unfolds on the page, and hopeful in the power of such stories to favor light over dark.