A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

A quick rundown… Saba is suddenly left alone in Iran after she sees her mother and sister flee. As she grows up, she wonders what Mahtab’s doing now…

Strengths: Saba’s journey is interesting – both sad and happy.

Weaknesses: I felt it was much slower when Saba was a child – my interest wasn’t truly piqued until Saba married.

Why I read it: Received an ARC from The Reading Room and Allen and Unwin – thank you!

Pages: 423 (ARC)

Published: 2013

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Setting: Iran

Rating: 7 out of 10

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a poignant tale of twin sisters growing up in Iran. Saba and Mahtab were mirror images of each other until the day Saba’s mother left and Saba saw Mahtab being dragged away. Forced to be alone for the first time, Saba finds friendship with two local village children, Ponneh and Reza. As the children grow up in a changing 1980s Iran where American books, magazines and video tapes are prized, they are forced to confront harsh realities of the new regime. Some events will be life changing, but throughout Saba clings to the memory that Mahtab and her mother are safely in America.

I enjoy books set in a different culture to my own and this tale is no exception. Reading this book helped me to understand more about what some of my friends and colleagues went through when they left Iran in the early 1990s. A lot of the everyday rules and rituals were foreign to me – such as the banning of alcohol and not being able to wear the shoes you want outside. Saba’s frequent mistakes and flaunting of the rules had much more severe consequences that I could envisage.

The predominant question as Saba and her friends are growing up is, ‘where is Mahtab?’ People try to tell her that Mahtab’s gone, but Saba won’t listen and her father won’t reveal the truth. The constant questioning got a little annoying for me as I could tell that I wasn’t going to find out any time soon. As the children grew older, the questioning lessened and Saba, Ponneh and Reza began to become tangled up in a whole new set of problems. I did like Saba’s tellings of Mahtab’s life in America (heavily influenced by movies and television, such as Growing Pains and Love Story) and looked forward to reading new ‘episodes’.

Storytelling is a major part of the plot, as is working out what is truth and what is fiction. Saba struggles to work out the many uncertainties in her life and why they have happened. It’s only as she faces the truth that she starts to heal. Separate chapters by Reza’s mother gives some clue that Saba isn’t always telling the truth. These chapters also help to shape the setting, which is beautifully described by Nayeri. The setting of rural Iran where somebody is always watching and no-one is safe is beautiful but unsettling.

This is a quietly emotional book that packed a punch at its conclusion – I was hoping I was mistaken in the fate of some of the characters. The contrasts Saba makes between herself and Mahtab are quite sad, highlighted in the different opportunities available to women in Iran and America.

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