STARRED REVIEW
November 2014

A magical portrait of an exile community

By Gina B. Nahai
Gina B. Nahai’s fifth novel, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., is a book full of enchantments and mysteries. The mystery that launches her tale is a contemporary murder: On a morning in June 2013, Neda Raiis, the wife of a Iranian Jewish exile named Raphael’s Son, reports finding her husband with his throat slit in an idling car at the gate of their Los Angeles mansion. By the time the police arrive, his body has disappeared.
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Gina B. Nahai’s fifth novel, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., is a book full of enchantments and mysteries. The mystery that launches her tale is a contemporary murder: On a morning in June 2013, Neda Raiis, the wife of a Iranian-Jewish exile named Raphael’s Son, reports finding her husband with his throat slit in an idling car at the gate of their Los Angeles mansion. By the time the police arrive, his body has disappeared.

Raphael’s Son, we quickly learn, has cheated almost everyone in the L.A. Iranian-Jewish community in an elaborate Ponzi scheme, with a vengeance beyond anything Bernie Madoff could have conceived. In fact, “he reveled in the harm he had inflicted upon everyone else.” Is he really dead, members of the community wonder, while readers will wonder about the source of his implacable anger.

For insight into Raphael’s Son’s vengeful nature, Nahai carries us to Tehran in 1952, and into the heart of a powerful, wealthy Iranian-Jewish family, the Soleymans. We follow their fates through the reign of the Shah of Iran, the tumultuous Iranian revolution and then into exile.

Nahai populates her story of old Tehran with elements of magical realism. Raphael Soleyman has a heart that glows through his skin after dark, attracting a following of fireflies, nocturnal birds and restless ghosts on the nights he sleepwalks through the city. Elizabeth Soleyman radiates the smell of the sea, which inspires nostalgia and confusion among those around her.

This is irresistible storytelling. No surprise there. Nahai’s second novel, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, was a finalist for the Orange Prize, and her third, Caspian Rain, was an L.A. Times Best Book of the Year. But what really sets The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. apart is how Nahai uses her estimable gifts to offer a nuanced, sometimes satirical portrait of the tight-knit Iranian-Jewish exile community in Los Angeles and to illuminate the historic disruptions to life in Iran that brought them here. It’s a fascinating read.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.

The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.

By Gina B. Nahai
Akashic Books
ISBN 9781617753213

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