Reinvention may be a necessity for most exiles, but it does not always come naturally; the new identity can graft roughly onto the old. The strains and indignities that come with remaking a life are what give “Refuge” poignancy and relevance. The world is now flooded with the displaced, and the countries best positioned to receive them are increasingly hostile. In Amsterdam, where much of the novel takes place (Niloo has moved there with Gui), the real-life, far-right politician Geert Wilders makes several appearances, exploiting and fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment. Nayeri even quotes him directly: “You will not make the Netherlands home.”
Gui dismisses this blunt warning as politics as usual. Niloo fumes. Her husband hasn’t a clue what a privilege it is to lead a life unburdened by politics, unbent by the strongmen of history.
If displacement demands extraordinary accommodations of personality, so does remaining in a country run by a brutal autocrat. Niloo’s father, one of the most exciting reasons to read this book — he’s a dentist, an atheist and, above all, a hedonist, an exuberant devotee of opium and poetry and drink — feels terrible shame about his passivity in the face of Ahmadinejad’s Iran. But he’s too afraid to uproot, “unable to leave behind his practice, his reputation, his warm village.”
And his opium. What we learn about the specifics of opium addiction in this book — “ei vai,” as Nayeri’s characters say. Oh dear.
So the story of Niloo’s dispersed clan unfolds, crisscrossing both time and time zones, with scenes in Oklahoma, where Niloo seeks asylum with her mother and brother; in Iran, where Niloo’s father is embroiled in an impressively nasty divorce from his third wife (ei vai); in the Netherlands, where Niloo’s own marriage suffers as her buried identity reasserts itself; and in the various cities where Niloo sees her father those four times.
Their visits are some of the most painful episodes in the book. Each time, Niloo’s father cannot reconcile the serious person in front of him with the happy and mischievous girl he once knew, or make the proper mental adjustments to account for her maturation, her new habits. When, at 14, she recoils from his touch, as teenagers are wont to do, he squirms in distress. “He looked straight…