Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

My first experience of this story was the 2007 film, which I watched a number of years ago when there was still enough of a World Cinema section in HMV to browse and buy interesting new gems from the world outside Hollywood.

I recently read the graphic novel for the first time, it having been given to me as a really thoughtful gift quite a while back and subsequently sat on my shelf for a criminal length of time.

The film, despite adding some nice depth and (somehow, using a majoritatively black and white palette) colour to the illustrations of the book, originally left me feeling a bit flat, and since reading the book I think I can see why: the book is just so rich and expansive, and while it’s a worthy story to develop into multiple mediums, a traditional feature-length animated film just can’t communicate in the same way that the book can. The snaking headscarves are one element that really do work on-screen; adding a sense of urgency and real threat to their confrontational appearances. It’s worth a watch, maybe even before you read the book, because the book was, for me, a more enjoyable experience.

Anyway, enough about the film.

The book is a treasure. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s been a while since I read anything so full of perfect snapshots of humanity. Having never visited Iran, it felt quite special not only to learn a tremendous amount more about its history than I ever did from the news or from school, but also to feel connected to the author, an Iranian woman with whom I had no idea I’d have much in common with, but who seemingly went through a lot of the same personal and social feelings and ideological questions that I did growing up. And, while emotionally universal, it’s a unique and landmark book. It’s not every day you read an illustrated autobiography detailing that a young girl has tried to pee standing up to understand someone’s point. ‘Marji’ maintains this objective curiosity (portrayed wonderfully by a kind of blank, alert look penned by the author herself) throughout the years the book covers, making her the perfect empathic window of a protagonist to vessel her experiences to the reader. She also illuminates little mental games she used to play to keep herself occupied, for example guessing the shape of a woman under her scarf, which is just joyful.

Ostensibly the story is about growing up in Iran during a time of war, change and unrest, and the events of the period are inextricable from her personal experience, but actually on finishing the book I was left with an overwhelming focus on the feeling of being human. Of connecting to someone halfway across the globe, born two decades before me. For that, I have Satrapi’s integrity and continuing self-belief as a spokesperson to thank.

Marji compressed into cartoon form, in her early years at least, is kind of like Bart and Lisa Simpson combined. She’s mischievous and fun-loving, passionate and philosophical. Throughout the comic-strip chapters we get to know her through dialogue with her friends at school and her family at home – mainly the latter, where her emotional and philosophical forming seems to have undergone the main course of its development. It is clear that Satrapi’s family was a strong community of which she was an important, comfortable, accepted part. She also delivers us informative asides detailing specific terms, making the story further accessible.

She moves on into an independent young-adulthood abroad and continues to travel and take in new experiences, until heartbreak drives her to homelessness, and subsequent illness, before she returns to Iran to reconnect with her family.

Of course, the subject matter could and does no doubt provide enough of a unique selling point for most publishers, but quite aside from the backdrop of the Iranian revolution and the Europe of the 1980s, I really enjoyed Marji’s company.

Find more book-related thoughts on my Goodreads.

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