Our Shared Shelf June book review: “Persepolis 1 & 2”


Welcome back to my monthly coverage of Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf book club! Last month’s pick was “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson and this month Ms. Watson has chosen “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi.

DISCLAIMER: Emma did not clarify, herself, if she intended the club to read only the first “Persepolis” novel, entitled “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood,” as the series is issued in multiple volumes. At the advice of fellow members, I picked up a bundle book that included the sequel, “Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return” as well. Most other members read both, and based on their Goodreads ratings on the pair; I’ve done the same.

“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” official Goodreads synopsis:

“Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, ‘Persepolis’ is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

‘Persepolis’ paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, ‘Persepolis’ is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love.

“Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return” official Goodreads synopsis:

In ‘Persepolis,’ heralded by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day,” Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging.

Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran.

As funny and poignant as its predecessor, ‘Persepolis 2’ is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism. In its depiction of the struggles of growing up—here compounded by Marjane’s status as an outsider both abroad and at home—it is raw, honest, and incredibly illuminating.

The heavens have opened up. A choir of angels is singing. June was a gift in the Our Shared Shelf book club.

Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” and “Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return” were the long-awaited answers to a litany of questions I was asking myself and, by an extension, asking Emma Watson herself. This book is exactly the kind of material the club should have been reading all along: strong, markedly feminist and moving literature that not only packs an emotional punch but leaves you changed, anew. I have waited many months for this, and I feel almost honored to be reading and reviewing it — a statement (and feeling) I feared wouldn’t exist for me as a member of Our Shared Shelf.

There is something tangible about the “Persepolis” books, a palpability that can be put to both its real-life context and the ways in which its author crafts each bit of the story. It buzzes with life and with loss. It’s balanced. An issue I had faced with almost all the previous months’ picks was an overarching aura of disingenuity. A lot felt false, and it was clear that the book-reader relationship was extremely imbalanced. But in reading Satrapi’s work, the connection was instantaneous. Granted, I had read the first volume during my undergraduate studies, so I knew what I was getting myself into — but the payoff was still just as grand and completely fulfilling.

Each volume of Satrapi’s “Persepolis” series — if you can really classify it as a “series,” as it’s more like a many-parts memoir than a back-to-back book franchise we’ve come to associate with the term — is, in the most befitting word, honest. The volumes are raw, Satrapi (or Marji, as she’s known in the books) cracks herself wide open and brings forth a deeply powerful, rich account of her childhood in 1980s Iran, particularly during the Islamic revolution and the events thereafter. I hesitate to say the reading experience is akin to a rollercoaster, because it’s nowhere near as bumpy or bracing — it’s more comparable to a rolling ocean wave. You ride the humorous highs that Satrapi knows just how to infuse amongst hardships. You sink into the heart-wrenching realness of tragedy and uncertainty. It is engaging, it is brilliant, it is so incredibly important.

Without spoiling anything — because honestly, Satrapi’s work is so wonderful, I want to keep it fresh for anyone hoping to read it after reading this review — these pair of memoir/graphic novel/comic-strip-tales are engaging and beautiful and so worthy of the praise they’ve received. I dare to go so far as to say they are must-reads. The challenges and complexities of a life lived in tumult, and the speculative and hopeful and often wide-eyed perspective from which the account is written, mark the entirety of Satrapi’s work with a glow I’ve yet to see matched in any other memoir. These works are an absolute triumph, and I feel grateful to Emma Watson for choosing them, but infinitely more to Marjane Satrapi for bringing them into existence. I am hopeful. I am moved.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★ (9/10)

If you haven’t already, you can become a member of Our Shared Shelf now! Head on over to Goodreads and click “join group.” Be sure to check back here at TYF each month to see my reviews.

Important announcements:

  1. Emma has stated that OSS will now be bi-monthly, “to give people enough time to borrow/buy, read and discuss each book.”
  2. She put the July/August pick up to a poll, and it’s been decided that we will be reading “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein. 

I will see you in September for another review! Until then, happy reading.

AJ Caulfield is a 22-year-old writer, massive goofball, and quite possibly Leslie Knope's long-lost twin. She's a big fan of 80's rock music, female-directed films, and Mad Men.