I wish it didn’t have to be this difficult, I thought, as I finished reading the final few chapters of the English translation of I Hid My Voice, Iranian writer Parinoush Saniee’s second novel. I wish it didn’t have to be this harsh for children to survive in the world. I wish they weren’t thwarted by their own families. I wish they weren’t overwhelmed constantly by a complete sense of helplessness. But it is this way. Unfortunately, it has been this way for a long time.

The book, translated by Sanam Kalantari, opens with a first-person narrative from the protagonist Shahaab on his 20th birthday. He recalls the last twenty years of his life:

“A familiar voice inside me said, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’ And as always, my knee-jerk reaction was, ‘I don’t know’.”

Shahaab, who was mute for the first seven years of his life, was labelled a “retard” by his entire family. Pinned down by this label, he became an outcast who couldn’t fraternise with his cool cousin or his studious elder brother. He couldn’t even come to love his younger sister, for she talked despite being half his age. It was only Shahaab’s mother who believed he could speak, and that he would overcome his crippling shyness sooner or later. Eventually, he did. But it isn’t the story of this transformation that makes the book important.

“They always laughed when they called me ‘dumb,’ so I assumed it was a nice word. I didn’t realise that when people laughed it didn’t necessarily mean they were happy. After all, I was dumb.”

In Iran, quietness is seen as a protest against the regime where individual freedom is constantly under threat. But within the family, muteness is considered a sign of weakness and deep shame. This is what Shahaab imbibes; the sense of weakness and shame that makes him believes he belongs only to his mother. His siblings, who are more successful and a source of beaming pride for the family, belong to his father. So the transformation isn’t just the shift from muteness to speech, but the switch from a stubborn child’s resilience to an intelligent critique of a woman’s position in Iran, as seen through Shahaab’s mother and grandmother.

After the success of Book of Fate, one of the most notable works of translation in world literature in 2013, Saniee’s second book in English is another enthralling, sophisticated, and remarkable feat. I Hid My Voice doesn’t just show Saniee’s literary finesse, it also displays her success as a sociologist and psychologist.

A woman’s burden

Saniee, whose work is a portrayal of everyday life in Iran, is rarely clinical or devoid of empathy. Yet she is able to use real-world stories she has seen or heard and put them into her work, holding firmly to her extremely readable authorial voice, without giving up her specialisation in these academic disciplines. Although this book is set in Iran, it speaks to any culture that puts too much pressure on its children to excel and on men to be stone-hearted breadwinners, and places that debilitating emphasis on the woman as the miracle home-worker who glides through life with a quiet obedience with no needs of her own.

“I have worked with a large number of people and have gained experience that working specifically with women is better and far more fruitful,” Saniee, who often brings to light the private stories of women in Iran, said once in an interview. “I noticed that we live in a very special era in which the generation of women, even though have not had the benefit of necessary facilities, nevertheless have had to bear heavy responsibilities.”

This is who the (unnamed) mother in the book is. She has a successful degree and a love marriage. But she’s forced to leave work to care for her children, with a husband who treats his job as the most important thing in the household, depriving her not just of acknowledgment of her equal role in the family, but also love. And although the story is about the child living with a paralysing lack of speech, the voice Saniee gives to the mother, and subsequently the grandmother, is where she really grabs the reader.

Complicated outcomes

And so, the narration shifts from the clueless Shahaab to the morose mother. People rarely hide around Shahaab. They don’t censor the explicit content of their speech, relishing in revealing their secret disdain and affairs in front of him, and criticise him with candid brutality. His muteness converts him into a static house-plant. It is cared for and fed in time, but treated almost as non-living.

What they don’t realise is that Shahaab, with this constant burst of information he is exposed to, learns about deceit really young. Conflicted about his morals, he punishes those who he thinks are doing wrong. His narration is therefore marked with a maturity beyond his years.

His mother, on the other hand, though well-educated and older, remains clueless about her own son, feeding into him her worry and hopes but withholding her love. Both characters are eventually selfish. But in their selfishness they have a lot of tenderness and devotion that unfortunately remains bottled inside.

Of course, Saniee chooses to be optimistic, in her delicate and soothing way. She threatens the reader with drama, the kind that keeps you turning pages late into the night, though she resolves everything and ties it up neatly. But the entire conflict-resolution-oriented formulaic writing isn’t self-evident.

In fact, the novel is evocative, maybe even eye-opening. It draws you in and spares you from unnecessarily complicated family details and flowery language. I found myself flipping through its pages on the metro, reading both fast and slow at the same time. But something about it was so deeply personal, which I can barely put in words. I had to finish the book privately in my bed, where I could weep soundlessly without judgment.

I Hid My Voice, with its portrayal of family failure, is both compassionate and unsparing and beyond liberating. It is bound to leave one breathless by pushing one either into a choking nightmare or a dreamy catharsis. It’s this cocktail that Saniee so keenly perfects – of voyeuristic pleasure and devastating sadness.

I Hid My Voice, Parinoush Saniee, translated by Sanam Kalantari, Abacus.