Yasmin Crowther’s debut novel, The Saffron Kitchen, opens with heartbreak. Maryam has lived in England most of her life, but when her nephew Saeed, the son of her sister Mara, comes to live with Maryam and her husband, Edward, after Mara’s untimely death, more than just Saeed comes into Maryam’s life. Maryam begins to remember her life in Iran, her feelings about her family, particularly her estranged father, and the circumstances leading up to her immigration to England. Tension and unhappiness hits the surface one morning with devastating effect for Maryam's daughter's baby. This event prompts Maryam to face the ghosts of her memories, and she returns to Iran to understand what propelled her to leave and why she could never forget her past. Maryam travels to Iran only to discover that the world of Iran that she left many years ago is gone forever, except for one very special person, Ali, her father’s servant who once saved her life. Maryam realizes that she may still be able to capture aspects of her old life in Iran with Ali, but this means sacrificing her English life.
This is a delicate novel about a woman in between two worlds. Maryam is unwilling to forget the past, but terrified to accept the present. She does not feel whole in England and believes that Iran will fulfill her; yet in Iran, Edward and Sara, Maryam's daughter, do not exist. The novel asks two deep questions: is it possible to reclaim the past, and if you can, should you? When she is a teenager, Maryam sacrifices her father’s love because she refuses to follow his directions (which I don’t fault her for), but rather than resisting the temptation to ruin another relationship in her life, she waltzes close to losing Edward and Sara’s love because she will not give up her ghosts and accept the limitations of life. Yet, here, too, I don’t know if I fault her. Maryam’s decisions can either be seen as bullheaded selfishness or desperate decisions made by a woman in a context where women have no such privilege. Though I struggled with Maryam has a character, in the end, I see her point.
Sara, however, makes a different choice than her mother when she paints her kitchen wall saffron, a color associated with the foods and landscape of Iran. Sara understands, where her mother does not, that life is not black and white, or all or nothing; it is a question of mixture. The saffron color brings the world of Iran into her English kitchen. Sara realizes that this is the extent of her experience with Iran: flavor, color, texture, but not life there. Unlike her mother, she is not burdened by memories and hurt, and she does not assume these feelings. Sara realizes she is English with Iranian blood; her mother is not sure where she fits in. Maryam refuses to accept that her past has become something other than a vibrant, breathing thing; a saffron colored wall in the kitchen would only remind of her things she could not have, rather than represent a tribute to her home country.
The end of the novel is ambiguous and somewhat truncated. I wanted more information about the characters, but perhaps that is the point. These deep questions of pasts, homelands, and family are not easily answered, and I would have thought less of the book if Crowther had ended the story with a moral. Despite the ending, and some concern with the similarity between character voices, which worked itself out by the end, this was a thoroughly enjoyable book.