A review of The New Angel by Ali Alizadeh

Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs

The New Angel
by Ali Alizadeh
Transit Lounge Publishing
2008, Softcover, 255 pages, AU $27.95. ISBN 9780980461619

Ali Alizadeh’s debut novel is classified as Fiction, but, like many first novels, it clearly draws on the author’s own autobiography. Alizadeh lived in Iran until the age of 14, when he emigrated to Australia, and is thus able to give us the perspective of a young adolescent trying to negotiate not only the usual dizzying array of adolescent issues, but also the effects of the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the rise of fundamentalism on his family and community.

A schoolboy is chastised for drawing heroic pictures of ‘Ancient Persians defending Iran against Alexander the Great’ (p.74). His teacher tells him: ‘Ancient Persians were not Muslims. They were Zoroastrian infidels. We can’t have this. And why is your Alexander naked? Depictions of nude bodies are absolutely forbidden … You must draw pictures of our Revolutionary War …’ In his sports class he is humiliated by his teacher for being ‘middle class sissy shit!’ because he’s asthmatic and unathletic while ‘Our boys are dying for God’ (p.77). Disgusted, the schoolboy leaves the schoolyard and meets a young woman on the bus stop who admires his picture of Alexander. The subsequent sweet but quite innocent relationship between Alizadeh’s protagonist, Bahram, and his beautiful friend Fereshteh is a story that would under normal circumstances be about the gentle awakening of young love, but in this social context becomes a story of loss, injustice, death and revenge.

The portrait of Bahram’s cousin in Iran, Abbas, is an unforgettable depiction of a young man drunk on the power bestowed on him by a ruling elite. Bahram witnesses Abbas’ sexual abuse of his mother, Abbas’ aunt, in her own home. Under the guise of enforcing sharia law on a ‘shameless’ (ie. unveiled) woman, Abbas throws his weight around and Bahram’s mother has no choice but to submit, or risk being reported to the authorities as a ‘whore’. This abuse of power needs little commentary from the narrator; the horror of the events he witnesses both within his family and in his wider community is self-evident. What is unexpected is that Abbas also ends up in Australia, and the adult Bahram’s final confrontation with his cousin forms the novel’s denouement.

Interspersed with this narrative is the older Bahram, now living on the Gold Coast-Brisbane stetch of Australia’s east coast. As a high school student he experiences racism, bullying, and labels of ‘terrorist’. As a young adult he undertakes the typical rite-of-passage long road trip across Australia, but his appearance prompts patrons in an outback pub to suspect him of being an escapee from a refugee detention centre, and they treat him appallingly. These incidents underline the difficulties immigrants face on a daily basis as they attempt to ‘assimililate’ into a culture that doens’t appear to want them.

Bahram’s is the voice of the newly-arrived immigrant, misunderstood and always alien, at home neither in the country he has come from nor the one he now inhabits. Such people are becoming increasingly common in our globalised society, and their outsider voices need to be heard and heeded if the notion of a ‘global village’ is to ever become a reality.

Transit Lounge, though a small publisher, has done a lovely job with this book, which is aesthetically pleasing and well-edited. Some of Alizadeh’s earlier poetry publications let him down in this respect, but The New Angel showcases his talent for lyrical prose and is hopefully just the beginning of his prose output.

About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).