Imagine it: One day, having grown up as the only child of two loving parents, you stumble upon a photograph that shatters your perceptions of your identity and the past. In the photo is a young girl in a wedding veil; you recognize the bride as your mother, but the groom beside her is definitely not your father. Your mind swirls; what does this mean? It sounds like the fantastical start of a suspense novel, but for Jasmin Darznik, author of The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, it was a real-life shock.
Darznik discovered the photograph in her early 20s, while helping her mother move. She realized that she had to confront her mother, an ambitious, stalwart Iranian woman who was initially unwilling to talk about her life before moving to America. After many months, however, the first of 10 cassette tapes arrived in the mail; her mother had painstakingly recorded her story, revealing her former life in prerevolutionary Iran. As Darznik learns of the abuse, neglect, poverty and guilt her mother was once subject to, she sees her in a new and gentler light, and she begins to reconfigure her mother along with herself as the drama unfolds.
“Her story began to pass like a secret life between us,” Darznik writes as she transforms the tapes for us into a Scheherazade-like narrative that begins with the birth of her mother’s mother, Kobra, and illuminates contrasting images of Iran: the exotic Persia, full of persimmons, pomegranates and soft-bellied figs, and the ugly Persia, full of injustice, danger and cruelty to women. It is into this milieu that Darznik’s mother, Lili, is born.
While Lili’s new life in America is ultimately her salvation, it is the chronicle of her life in Iran that makes this such a wrenching and unforgettable tale: the bitter years as a young child watching her own mother suffer; her marriage at 13 to the monstrous man in the photo; finally, the forced abandonment of her first daughter, Sara—the Good Daughter of the title. Darznik, as the American daughter, ultimately offers a moving testimony to the half-sister she has never known, but whose story intertwines with her own, and for whom readers will surely wish a good life.