I recently received an advance copy of Gina B. Nahai’s latest novel, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., an epic saga that offers readers a unique glimpse into the Iranian Jewish community. It took Nahai seven years to write this novel, and man did her hard work pay off! I’ve been in a reading rut for a while now, starting books and putting them down after a couple chapters out of disinterest and boredom. Then I started The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., and had to force myself to put it down so I didn’t fall behind on my work!
The story begins with the modern day murder of Raphael’s Son, a bitter and cruel Madoff-like villain notorious for conducting a massive Ponzi scheme that preyed on Iranian Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles and who went to great effort to take down the remaining members of the Soleyman family. By the end of chapter one Raphael’s Son has had his throat cut as he sat in his Aston Martin at the gates of his mansion in the Holmby Hills, and his body has mysteriously disappeared before the police arrive at the scene.
The narrative then jumps back in time to 1950s Tehran. It introduces the Soleymans, a wealthy and well-respected Jewish family with two sons. Raphael, the eldest, is plagued by intestinal parasites and sleepwalking due to his translucent heart, an inherited trait in the Soleyman clan that causes his heart to glow white at night and attracts moths and ghosts to him as he wanders the streets of Tehran. Because of Raphael’s poor health, his father has decided to bestow the right of heir onto the younger Aaron instead. This causes Aaron and later his young widow Elizabeth to become embroiled in a longstanding feud with Raphael’s Wife, a.k.a. the Black Bitch of Beshehr, who impossibly claims that Raphael’s Son, born thirteen months after Raphael’s death, is the rightful heir to the Soleyman fortune.
The feud lasts for decades, starting in Tehran with Raphael’s Wife and then passed down from Wife to Son, bringing it thousands of miles to Los Angeles where Raphael’s Son and Elizabeth and her daughter Angela relocate after the Cultural Revolution. It evolves and expands as the years go by, resulting in murder, suicide, kidnapping, and general tragedy for everyone caught in its crossfire.
A lyrical and delightfully intricate book from start to finish, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a remarkable piece of storytelling that defies genre definition and narrative convention. Nahai masterfully combines the murder mystery narrative with the family saga narrative with the Iranian Jewish immigrant experience narrative, all while incorporating elements of magical realism that are beautifully fantastical yet still firmly grounded in a realistic narrative world.
Not satisfied stopping there, Nahai also weaves together the stories of this large cast of characters whose fates are forever intertwined, seamlessly jumping back and forth between time and place to create a complex narrative that is simultaneously cohesive and extremely engaging. Each character is exceptionally well developed, though the real standout of the story is Raphael’s Son. He is one of the most conflicting characters I’ve ever come across, repulsive and reprehensible in every way, and yet you can’t help but pity him as his story unfolds. You understand why he does the terrible things he does, and while you never quite get to the point where you forgive him, by the end you come to empathize with his plight.
A true pleasure to read, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is an absolutely stunning piece of literature and one of the best books I’ve read all year. It’s a genuine page turner that I dare you to put down once you start. Two big thumbs up!