Savage Tongues: A Novel
- By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
- Mariner Books
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
- August 10, 2021
Though uneven, this story of personal and cultural trauma is not without its rewards.
“I am a half-formed thing, neither this nor that.” So says Arezu, the searching narrator of Savage Tongues, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s newest novel. She was speaking of her lineage — as the daughter of a British father and an Iranian mother — and her background: a woman who spent her earliest years in Tehran and adolescence in the United States. And it is this, the potential of a young woman’s story and all its half-formed, two-sided experiences and things neither this nor that, that makes the book most promising.
And most problematic.
In her late 30s, when she is happily married and a celebrated writer, Arezu and her best friend, Ellie, return to the apartment in Marbella on the Costa del Sol of Spain, where, two decades earlier, Arezu spent a, let’s say, formative summer. The apartment belonged to Arezu’s father and stepmother. When Arezu arrived, she believed she’d be spending time there with her father. But he never showed. Instead, he sent the teenager a regular, small allowance, hand-delivered by her stepmother’s handsome, alluring, 40-year-old nephew, Omar.
You probably have an idea as to what happened next. You’d be right.
This return trip 20 years later comes after Arezu’s father gives the long-abandoned and dilapidated apartment to her, and she decides that, with Ellie by her side, she’ll finally be able to face her past and “that strange, wild summer [she’d] spent in this moonlit city of salt and gulls and palm trees, on this dark and playful coast, living in [her] father’s vacant and abandoned apartment, learning to ride Omar in the blazing afternoon heat.”
So, yes, Omar and Arezu embarked on a sexual relationship, one that Arezu has never fully recovered from and that she spins over and over in her mind, exploring its pain, admitting its pleasures. This is one of the particularly interesting things that the author does: She not only is willing to plumb Omar’s culpability (grown man, 17-year-old girl) in this “affair” (a word Arezu mulls continually), but she allows Arezu to contemplate her own part in things — her needs, her young lust, perhaps even her complicity.
It becomes evident, though, that this was not a tryst shared by equal, consenting adults; there was something dangerous and violent happening, Arezu tells us. But therein lies one of the weaknesses of the novel: We never fully learn what happened.
The narrative, told from the depths of Arezu’s internal point of view, circles and repeats and inspects the emotional impact of whatever her trauma was. And while this is a realistic response to trauma, it is not a particularly effective way to write a story.
The flashbacks of that summer are sparse and get to be somewhat redundant, both the troubling ones (a trapped baby boar, a humiliating shave) and the better ones (riding on the back of Omar’s motorcycle, exploring unpopulated beaches). There are parallels made between what happened with Omar and Arezu to historical and geopolitical conflicts, to the power and failure of language, and to systemic gender violence. But these ideas — interesting as they are — can be didactic without a robust narrative to fold them into.
At one point, Arezu considers Omar as a character from her writer’s point of view, and this leads her to talk about the word “plot” with Ellie. “In all my years of writing I hadn’t once been able to produce an outline or a novel that was distinctly plot driven. The word itself — plot — seemed problematic to me, artificial.”
She goes on to say, “That word — plot — also signified a piece of land, a territory with distinct boundaries…The literature I craved was untethered, mysterious, atmospheric. It was boundary crossing.” After pages and pages of such atmospheric, internal musings, these sentences feel like a sort of explanation or defense. Or maybe they are meant to be a challenge to the reader.
Savage Tongues is at its best a little more than halfway through, when Arezu and Ellie are fully present on the page together. Scenes begin to emerge, character interactions develop. One especially satisfying chapter finds them at the beach after they have spent days scrubbing away what they can in the filth and drear of the apartment, where Arezu repeatedly sees the ghosts of her younger self with Omar.
By the sea, they watch the antics of a group of young women, topless and aware of their power; have an illuminating conversation about sexuality and cultural expectations with a young waiter named Salim; and enjoy fruity, boozy drinks and “orgasmic” octopus. It is a much-needed break from the gloom of the apartment and Arezu’s claustrophobic introspection, and its light gives the story a new perspective. From this point on, the novel is rich and full to its finish.
Neither this nor that. Some parts of Savage Tongues read like a heady, contemplative essay exploring the nature of personal and historical trauma. Others tell the story of a powerful, essential friendship and how it might help to ease the pain of such trauma. Each of these ways of telling are fine, and in this case, well written. Side by side, though, they can be unbalanced, each coming off a little half-formed. Neither this nor that.
Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was named a distinguished favorite by the Independent Press awards. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist.