Year of publication: 2006
Setting & time: Small town in Ireland, 1980s
Sisters Merjan, Bahar and Layla, refugees from the Iranian revolution, arrive in the Irish village of Ballinacroagh and open the Babylon Café. Chef Marjan prepares mouthwatering Persian food in the kitchen and serves it with the help of their sisters. But while most of the villagers welcome them, some disapprove of their presence, especially small-town kingpin Thomas McGuire, who wants to buy the house where the café is to open a disco. Aided by the town gossip and his loutish older son, he begins a campaign against the foreign ‘sluts’. But his younger son is dating Layla, the village priest is the sisters’ most faithful customer and the café seems set for success.
Each chapter begins with a Persian recipe and the food is incorporated somehow into each chapter.
It’s no secret that I like to read foodie books, so when I came across this novel in the library, I took it home with me in the hope that this would make a satisfying read, and it was everything I have come to expect from this kind of fiction: full of the joy of cooking, a little romance, a bit of conflict, some humour, a dash of magic realism, small souls who disapprove of the the exotic strangers in their midst, and the healing power of time, love and good food. Very much like Chocolat by Joanne Harris, in fact, but it must be said that Mehran is not as good a writer or storyteller as Harris.
The story just has too many flaws. The sisters are relatively well fleshed-out and realistically different from each other, and the descriptions of their ordeal in Iran are terrifyingly realistic, but the descriptions of most of the Irish people and the village come across as a bit twee, as if cut out of a tourist brochure or gleaned from a superficial viewing of an episode of Ballykissangel. The friendly Italian widow from whom the sisters rent the café, the jolly village priest, the paunchy villain, the nasty village gossip, and in fact most of the supporting cast, are glaring stereotypes. A couple of women are, unbelievably, described in terms of the nymphomania of one and the frigidity of the other. The prose is often purple, sometimes embarrassingly so, and the attempts at spicing things up with magic realism are more parsley than pepper. Both Joanne Harris and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni have done food related magic realism better, Harris with chocolate and Divakaruni with spices.
This is a quick, easy read, and rather disappointing. In the end, all that kept me reading was the recipes (which are the best part of the book) and descriptions of food and food preparation, which are, admittedly, cleverly woven into the narrative. Too much time is spent on building up a conflict between the sisters and McGuire, considering that it turns out to be so one-sided that the sisters hardly seem to notice it. This ends in a climax that parallels a funny and pathetic scene in Chocolat. Unfortunately here it just feels contrived and the resolution fizzles rather than sizzles. 2 stars.
P.S. The recipes really are tempting. I plan to try one or two before I return the book to the library.