First Line: Anna was deeply asleep, which was unusual for her.
It is 1979. The Shah has fled, and the Ayatollah Khomeini is in control of Iran. A Bitter Veil opens as Anna is awakened early one morning by the pounding of Republican Guards at the door of her home in Tehran. When she opens the door, she is immediately whisked away to prison, charged with the death of her husband Nouri.
Anna and Nouri met while studying in Chicago. They fell passionately in love, married, and moved to Tehran, living close to Nouri's wealthy family. They'd barely begun their married life when everything is thrown into turmoil. Everyday existence becomes increasingly restricted, none of the familiar Western rules apply, and Anna's marriage begins to fall apart as Nouri's behavior becomes more and more erratic. Women are required to wear hijab. Random arrests, torture, even Nouri's contempt become the norm. Now Nouri is dead, Anna is alone-- in prison in a hostile country-- and there is no one she can trust.
This book has an explosive start then immediately changes gears to explain how Anna and Nouri met and came to be living in Tehran. This "filling in the details" is fascinating stuff because we learn the two main characters' personalities as well as the unbelievably tense atmosphere in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. As Anna stumbles in learning the unfamiliar traditions of her new family and her new country, so do we. But always lurking in the background is the knowledge that Nouri is dead... and Anna is in prison. The need to know Anna's fate keeps the pages turning to the very end.
Hellmann's research is impressive. She put me in the midst of the Iranian Revolution to watch a naive young outsider become trapped by things beyond her control. What I liked the most about this book is that it's so complex. Anna isn't automatically the heroine; these things don't happen to her simply because she's a poor American girl trapped in an evil Islamic country. Anna acts first and thinks about the consequences when it's too late-- and while I may have wanted to sit her down and talk some sense to her, I never felt contempt for Anna because there are good reasons for her reckless behavior.
Although this is Anna's story, Hellman also shows how the frightening political unrest affects the many Iranian characters in the book. Some fall under the Ayatollah's spell. Some escape. And some are unbelievably kind.
If you're in the mood for a fast-paced thriller with complex characters that engages both your mind and your emotions, I advise you to get a copy of Libby Fischer Hellmann's A Bitter Veil.