Dora Levy Mossanen brings to life a magical, mystical, erotic view of 14th century Persia in the debut novel HAREM, the story of three generations of strong, independent Jewish women who find themselves living amongst the exotic members of a Persian harem. This book is not just about these three women, however. It's also a tale of life in a harem, and the sultanas and the eunuchs that make it a small city within the palace of the Shah.
The story opens with 10-year-old Rebekah and her widowed mother living in the Jewish quarters of Persia. Poverty runs rampant here, and before Rebekah's mother dies, she tries to find a secure life for her daughter. She feels her only choice is to marry off Rebekah to any wealthy Jewish man who would promise to take care of her daughter forever. Rebekah is aware of her mother's ambitions, and one day, a prospective suitor comes to their home. Although Rebekah never sees his face, she will always remember his soft-spoken voice and his promises of dolls and candy and other wonderful things. It is to this man she thinks her mother is marrying her off.
Soon afterwards, Rebekah and her mother are visiting the home of an ancient Zoroastrian fortuneteller. "Her future is embellished with crowns and jewels; A life of lust and passion, conspiracy and love. At times, it will be difficult, but never, ever hopeless," says the old woman. A foreshadowing of things to come, it is difficult to even imagine what type of life may be in store for Rebekah, but her heart is full of hope.
Jacob the Fatherless is not the man of Rebekah's dreams. He is not the man with the soft and tender voice. He is an older rich brute of a merchant that has the money and the means to care for Rebekah's physical needs, but love is not in the cards. He breaks his promise to keep her pure and untouched until she reaches her first menstrual cycle, and rapes 10-year-old Rebekah on their first night together. Each day he abuses her physically, sexually, and emotionally, doing horrible things that could not even be imagined, and soon Rebekah's childhood is only a memory. She never sees her mother again. No one can save Rebekah from the hell in which she lives.
Rebekah gives birth to her daughter Gold Dust when she is only 14 years old. Jacob, who wanted a son, becomes so angry that he brands Rebekah between her breasts with a hot poker from the fire. He treats his daughter with the same hatred as he treats Rebekah. Rebekah manages to escape from Jacob, but now has to look out for her future, resorting to prostitution in order to support herself and her daughter. As Gold Dust grows older, Rebekah teaches her ways of becoming an independent woman and to never trust a man --- the greatest sin is to marry one. Through cunning and a desperate need to save her daughter from a similar fate, she finds a way to get Gold Dust accepted into the Shah's harem. And she succeeds.
What Gold Dust accomplishes during her life in the harem is something that no other sultana does up till that time --- she seduces the Shah and makes him fall in love with her. Her adventures while living in the palace are nothing less than magical as she befriends eunuchs and other sultanas. But with the birth of her daughter Raven, an albino whose extraordinary growth rate scares the rest of the harem, life changes for her once again. Raven embraces life in the harem and uses her station in life to get what she wants; her greed for power changes Gold Dust's life, and that of Rebekah, and a final betrayal nearly costs Gold Dust's life.
The vivid imagery of 14th century Persia, plus a few historical characters such as Timurlane, helps make HAREM a novel of epic proportions. First time novelist Dora Levy Mossanen does a great job of conjuring up the erotic passions of the sultanas, while at the same time giving the reader a fantasy view of what life in 14th century Persia could have been like. The book is part fantasy, part historical fiction, but it's pure entertainment.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton(Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 22, 2011