Book Review: Divided Loyalties by Nilofar Shidmehr

Divided Loyalties – Nilofar Shidmehr (Astoria, 2019)

New and different voices and particularly voices coming from other cultures and histories are something that I’m always on the look out for. So I was excited to get my hands on an Advance Copy of this short story collection. Each story centres around an Iranian woman. The earliest stories – going as far back as the 1970s – are set in Iran; the later stories have protagonists in Canada, immigrants of Iran. These are women living in the midst of turmoil. Whether that’s the upheaval of beginning a new life in a new country, the family struggle that comes after the death of a patriarch, a young girl moving toward adolescence, or a sister consumed with concern for her brother’s life in a dangerous nation.

The settings are unique (at least to the Western reader) and the cultural norms portrayed are often vastly different from what we might be familiar with. The relationships between men and women are at the core of nearly every story and it often seems like these women are trapped by their culture. Yet they are strong and independent and each one pushes boundaries when possible and necessary. These cultural differences seemed especially highlighted in the stories that take place in Canada. In “Let Go Of My Hair, Sir!” the main character and narrator often frustrated me with her behaviour but her actions were also heartbreaking as she navigated a new world. From outside she might look like an irresponsible mother or someone taking advantage of the system, but as the story draws us closer we see her history and what has brought her to this point.

There is quite a bit to praise in this collection but overall I found myself struggling to get through it. The story ideas are there but the execution faltered. The action of many of the stories lagged or went on too long so that I found myself losing interest in characters I’d originally been gripped by. Frequently, too, sentence structure took me out of the story. It wasn’t grammatical errors so much as awkwardly phrased sentences. The closest I can compare it to might be an issue in translation, except that this isn’t a translation. There were simply frequent sentences that weren’t phrased the way an English speaker would write them. Perhaps this was intentional, in order to remind the reader that these women are not thinking or speaking in English, but I found it jarring. Since I did read an ARC, it’s also possible these issues won’t show up in the final version. The author’s blurb tells me that Shidmehr is a specialist in literature and a professor at Simon Fraser University so I’m inclined to believe this is more of an editing issue than anything else and I would still be interested in reading other work by her.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Divided Loyalties by Nilofar Shidmehr”

    1. I believe this is her first fiction collection. She’s published poetry and scholarly work before so hopefully it’s a matter of finding her fictional voice because her chosen subject matter is generally great.

  1. I am reading this book (50% done). I as curious to find some reviews about it. I am a 46 years old Iranian-Canadian and I lived through the revolution and Iran-Iraq war and left Iran 25 years ago. I completely agree with you where you say “The story ideas are there but the execution faltered. The action of many of the stories lagged or went on too long so that I found myself losing interest in characters I’d originally been gripped by”.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It’s great to hear from someone who has a more personal experience. I’m glad you had a similar reaction!

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