WHAT WE OWE
by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde
(Fleet, $34)
Reviewed by David Hill

Nahid has spent so much of her life surviving, she's scarcely had time to live. Now, in a Swedish hospital, she learns she has stage four ovarian cancer. That's the jolting, if marginally cliched, start of this debut novella which comes at you like a sustained howl, demanding that we consider what we owe to others and how we define freedom and love.

Bonde takes us back over her protagonist's life in Iran, from her birth as "a disappointment" (the sixth girl in a family with no sons), to her admission into medical school and the pride of her liberal, Westernised family. She even wears miniskirts and styles her hair in a Farrah Fawcett mane.

But then she succumbs to the zealotry of handsome young Masood; devotes herself to resistance against the Shah's crushing regime. "The revolution fell upon us like stars." There is plotting, demonstrations, police truncheons and guns, detentions and brutal interrogations, the horrifying disappearance of a 14-year-old sister, which rips Nahid's life open.

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The fundamentalism that follows is no better. She and Masood buy false passports, bribe a way out of their tormented country, shelter first in a refugee camp and then in a welcoming but totally foreign land. Now she's dying, and racked with rage, against the death of her father, the bewildered brutality of her husband, the cynical destruction of idealism she's seen everywhere. And at her own misshapen life: she's reached safety and lived for another 30 years but feels her time has always been grudgingly granted.

"We have already lost so much. Why should we have to lose more?"

She's a challenging protagonist: abrasive, suffering, contemptuous, judgmental, relentless in her rejections and surgically honest. Short, concussive chapters jerk with sentences that hammer like a machine-gun. Bonde manages to be tender without any sentiment, precise but never reductive. It's a narrative arc which moves towards a wounded reconciliation. It's lit by moments of tranquillity and something close to joy but it's never easy or mawkish.

The ending is simultaneously heart-clutching and life-affirming, Read this short book and marvel; it shakes you to your centre.