The Woman Who Read Too Much: A Novel

  • By Bahiyyih Nakhjavani
  • Redwood Press
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Davar Ardalan
  • May 22, 2015

Set in the 19th-century world of monarchs, this book chronicles the haunting, rebellious lives of Qajar women.

Because my immediate Kurdish lineage can be traced back to my great-great-grandfather Reza Qoli Khan, the governor general of Kurdistan who married a Qajar princess, I have always been fascinated with the lives of women in these courts. And Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much doesn’t disappoint. Her visual storytelling is so enticing that it allows your imagination to shape, plot, and cast the narrative like episodes from a modern-day "House of Cards."

Set primarily in 19th-century Iran, the book chronicles political intrigue from the vantage point of the women who lived them. Nakhjavani paints the Shahs and monarchs as mostly weak and indecisive and the woman, especially Queen mother, as the dominant force who governs the finances, poisons political rivals, and controls the concubines.

In Nakhjavani’s Iran, women effectively rule the country. They know when to be gentle, when to be cruel, and when to be strong-willed for the sake of preserving power. “Do you want to sit on the throne of your forefathers,” Queen Mother asks the Shah, “or ride like an imbecile on the backs of foreigners who ridicule the royal harem?”

The book is based on the life of renowned poet Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, a 19th-century feminist who was killed for challenging the status quo. Thought of by some as the ultimate heretic, she is the voice of reason and justice in this prose. Nakhjavani’s poetess of Qazvin adds a much-needed dose of realism and skepticism to the court. She is the conscience of the nation ever testing the truths of power and politics.

So very little is known about the actual lives Qajar women lead. The Woman Who Read Too Much offers a fitting stage to their drama and remarkable detail about their daily lives and challenges.

In my own family, my great-great-grandmother Tuba Khanom — who was the sister of Mohammad Shah Qajar — also contained a rebellious spirit. Rather than assisting her father, the king of Iran, with conforming the Kurds of Iran, she fell in love with the courage and patriotism of the Kurds.  

Each line of Nakhjavani’s novel reminded me of the lore of Tuba Khanom in my family, and now I want to know more. But no matter your family history, The Woman Who Read Too Much reminds us all that whether Tudor, Qajar, or Clinton, behind every throne is a queen mother, wife, and sister who runs the show.

Davar Ardalan is a senior producer at NPR News and author of My Name is Iran and The Persian Square.

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