Pomegranate Soup (Babylon Cafe #1)
Harper Collins AUS
Read from my local library
It has been seven years since Marjan Aminpour fled Iran with her two younger sisters, just before the revolution broke out. They at first made their home in London but now they’ve come to Ballinacroagh in County Mayo, Ireland to start all over again. They take over the lease of a long abandoned pastry shop and open a Persian restaurant. Soon the exotic smells are wafting through the tiny village. The Babylon Cafe is open for business.
But the three sisters are not immediately welcomed by everyone. They’re used to much plainer food and at first the new cafe is regarded with suspicion. Slowly however, the enticing smells invite people past the door to sample the wares. There’s a notable exception – Ballinacroagh’s property mogul Thomas McGuire. He already owns the pubs and isn’t too pleased about a new eating establishment opening up right next door to one of his businesses, especially as he’s had plans for that old pastry shop for years. He makes it no secret that he doesn’t want the Aminpour sisters in the town and wants to drive the foreigners out.
Despite the hostility that comes from Thomas McGuire, the sisters do find a band of support to welcome them and frequent their cafe, giving them hope for the future. However it isn’t long before one of them believes her dreadful past is catching up to her. They’ve already had to run twice. All they want is the chance to have a safe and happy home in Ireland.
A couple of months ago I came across an article that lamented the death of author Marsha Mehran. I hadn’t heard of her but I was intrigued so I clicked on it and read through about her life. Her family fled Iran and lived in several places including South America, the United States, Australia and later on Mehran herself lived in Ireland. Her books seemed well received and interesting so I checked my local library and this one, the first of two Babylon Cafe books, was available so I put in a request.
When I first started reading, I think I forgot when it was set and I found myself being surprised at the immediate hostility from a lot of the local residents, just upon smelling the food and the spices as Marjan began to set up her kitchen for the first day of service. Then I remembered – this is probably in the mid 80s (the sisters fled Iran just prior to the revolution so 1978 or 79) and it’s seven years before they come to Ireland. Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country and Mayo is on the west coast, far removed from Dublin. It’s probably likely that there wasn’t a lot of diversity that had made it’s way to the tiny villages in that particular area. Persian cuisine probably would’ve been a very alien idea and time was probably required for people to decide to try it. On the first day, the sisters get no customers to their cafe.
In a way, this book is like a Persian-influenced Sarah Addison Allen. I’ve read all of Addison Allen’s books and there are several which revolve around characters that can inject power and emotions into food. Marjan seems to possess a similar sort of quality and she applies cultural inspiration and tradition into her dishes, using certain ingredients and spices for mood. As the oldest sister, she is practical and level-headed. I think she’s had to be, in order to get them this far. It was Marjan that arranged their escape and then supported the family by working in restaurants and then orchestrated their move to Ireland when they felt their safety was threatened living in London. Middle sister Bahar is nervy and frightened, not particularly positive about this move. A former nurse, she will be working in the cafe as well now and the reactions of some of the local people seem to hit Bahar the hardest. She’s very timid, for reasons which are revealed quite late in the story and I feel as though Bahar has perhaps a lot of pent up guilt and sadness still within her as well. Youngest sister Layla is still in high school and when she sets eyes on Malachy McGuire she becomes smitten immediately. Malachy is the younger son of Thomas McGuire and he’s furious when he finds out that his son is equally smitten by Layla.
Although I did really enjoy reading about the three women and their journey, I did find the magical realism stuff a touch heavy handed. It just felt a little bit too overdone, like it was trying a little too hard to inject something special into each of the three women. I really appreciated having a recipe to kick off each chapter though, something that Marjan would be cooking during that part of the book. I don’t know much about Persian food so it was wonderful to have that included and be better able to picture what the dish might look, smell and taste like. I was really interested in their past in Iran and appreciated the way in which it was told, in little trickles without too much grisly detail. In this case, less was definitely more and the author painted a very good picture of the fear that gripped Marjan and how she knew they had to get out.
Despite the magical realism being a bit too magical for me a times I still enjoyed this book a lot and I would definitely like to read the second book, Rosewater & Soda Bread and see what happens next to the 3 sisters.
Book #47 of 2015
Pomegranate Soup is the second book of my Eclectic Reader Challenge ticking off the fiction for foodies category
- Retellings (of fairytale, legends or myth)
- A book set in a country starting with the letter S (eg. Sweden, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Slovakia)
- PI Crime (fiction featuring a private investigator)
- A novel published before you were born
- Contemporary romance
Fiction for foodies(fiction featuring food/food related business)
- Microhistory (Non Fiction)
- Science Fiction set in space
Sports(Fiction or Non fiction)
- Featuring diversity
- Epistolary Fiction (fiction written in the format of letters/emails/diary entries)
- Middle Grade/YA Adventure