Book Review — Pomegranate Soup

Pomegranate Soup
Marsha Mehran
Random House, 2006

It’s 1986 and three Iranian sisters find themselves in the small town of Ballinacroagh, County Mayo, Ireland. They arrive suddenly, taking over a long-closed bakery space with plans to rush an opening of a Persian-themed cafe in only five days. They have escaped Iran via Pakistan and London, fleeing both the revolution and some personal demons.

Not all of the small town is receptive to their presence, including their neighbour, the publican, who had his hopes set on taking over the former Italian bakery to open a disco, never mind that the disco trend has long since passed.

Over time, with welcoming food, exotic spices, flavourful tea, and a desire to be part of the community, Marjan, Bahar, and Layla find acceptance and safety, but not without some small town drama to spice things up.

What starts out as a seemingly cozy story with a touch of magical realism (it’s rural Ireland, so there’s references to leprechauns and spirits, plus some allusions to the medical and spiritual aspects of the spices Marjan uses) goes to some dark places as we learn the story of the trio of women and how they have come to be in this town. They each have their own memories of Iran, and most of them are haunting. Behar is plagued with headaches and lives in fear of putting her sisters in further danger.

Mehran wrote this novel intending it to be the first in a series of seven books. She completed a follow-up, Rosewater and Soda Bread, but died tragically during the writing of the third book, leaving the story of the sisters incomplete. While Pomegranate Soup (named after the traditional Iranian dish which twice plays a vital role in the plot) ends on a happy note, the overall story feels incomplete — tied up with a bow, albeit a very loose one — with some characters requiring more fleshing out; presumably Mehran planned to do this with further titles.

As a work of food-themed fiction, Mehran creates good flow between the very descriptive passages about the food and the rest of the non-food bits of the story. Her descriptions of the flavourful, heady-scented Iranian dishes and teas are evocative and inviting, and she makes the food central to the overall plot. Recipes for pertinent dishes are included after each chapter as well and are a really nice touch.

Many reviewers on sites such as Goodreads have compared Pomegranate Soup (often unfavourably) to stories like Chocolat — the idea of the foreign or outsider woman setting up a food business in a small, conservative town and winning over the people there. But many of the aspects of the plot come from Mehran’s own life. Her family fled Iran during the revolution in the late 70s and ended up in Argentina where her parents ran a small Persian cafe. She married an Irishman and ended up living in a small town in Ireland, no doubt where she got the idea for the town and likely many of the townspeople. She even gives one of the minor characters an illness related to her gastro-intestinal system, which the author herself suffered from and later died from.

Rosewater and Soda Bread is in my “to read” pile, and I’m interested to see where Mehran takes these characters. There were enough loose ends here that the plot has many places it could go. I’m just sad that the world lost Mehran before she could complete the whole series.