The mystery of Marsha Mehran: The best-selling young novelist who died a recluse in a rubbish-strewn cottage on Ireland’s west coast

Cahal Milmo tells the story of a romantic, restless spirit who struggled to find a place that she could call home

Cahal Milmo
Thursday 01 January 2015 18:10 GMT
Marsha in happier times
Marsha in happier times

From the moment of her arrival in Lecanvey, Marsha Mehran cut a solitary figure.

The few times she was seen were when she would sit, in the depths of winter, on a bench in the shadow of Ireland’s holiest mountain and open her laptop to catch the Wi-Fi from the village pub opposite.

The Dawson family, who run Staunton’s Pub in a crook of the meandering road that tracks the stark beauty of County Mayo’s Atlantic coast, repeatedly invited the striking young woman into the warmth.

Once or twice in four months, she accepted. But most of the time the 36-year-old politely declined, explaining that she needed to get back home. Visitors to her nearby rented house overlooking a rocky beach were greeted with a sign: “Do not disturb. I’m working.”

As Therese Dawson, the landlady of the homely boozer in the shadow of the 2,500ft Croagh Patrick, put it: “I suppose she needed our Wi-Fi and she’d be out there in all weathers. Of course we invited her in. We told her she didn’t have to worry about buying anything. But I sensed from her that she preferred to be alone.”

Journey’s end: the beach at Lecanvey, County Mayo, where Marsha Mehran lived her last days (alamy)

Just how alone only became clear shortly before 1pm on 30 April last year.

After days of messages and door knocks had gone unanswered, Teresa Walsh, the letting agent for the boxy, unlovely bungalow on nearby Pier Road, rented by Marsha since late January, used her spare keys to get inside.

Some 18 days earlier, Marsha had sent a text saying she could not deal with a question about her tenancy because she had been “vomiting blood for the last few weeks”. The estate agent’s response – asking if she had seen a doctor and offering help – met with no answer.

Mrs Walsh found her Iranian-born tenant lying face down on the bedroom floor, wearing only a woollen cardigan. She had been dead for about a week and around her lay the detritus of her increasingly marginal existence in the previous weeks and months: dozens of empty mineral water bottles and the wrappers of the large chocolate bars that had become her chief source of sustenance.

Amid the squalor, her sole tangible financial assets were a single euro coin and a $5 note.

It was a grim, lonely passing that might otherwise have gone unremarked beyond Lecanvey and its windswept beaches, but for one thing: Marsha Mehran was an internationally best-selling author, read in dozens of countries, pursued by film directors, garlanded with rave reviews and, according to those who knew her, a free spirit with a rare zest for life and many more books to write.

Marsha Mehran’s bungalow, where she kept a sign: ‘Do not disturb: I’m working’

A coroner in the nearby county town of Castlebar last month recorded an open verdict at an inquest into Marsha’s death after hearing that the decomposition of her body had been too advanced to pinpoint a physical cause of death. An investigation by the Garda Siochana, the Irish police, ruled out foul play. All windows and doors had been secured from the inside. Equally, there were no traces of drugs – medical or otherwise – that would evidence an act of desperation or despair.

The real reasons for her demise lie in an extraordinary story of globetrotting exile, passion and ultimately a search for identity that brought Marsha to unkempt hermitude in the westernmost limits of Europe, and an untimely death.

In many ways, her arrival in the heart of a small community in the west of Ireland was not unusual. From the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to a long list of modern writers, from the Frenchman Michel Houellebecq to Frederick Forsyth, the Atlantic fringe has long attracted artistic and intellectual blow-ins, lured by the landscape and, until they were recently abolished, tax breaks.

But while Marsha, like her predecessors, found inspiration among the Celts, she was also, in the words of her Irish-American former husband, “fighting her demons”.

It was an existence which, in happier times, had seen her train for a decade as a concert pianist in Buenos Aires, Miami and Adelaide; work unwittingly for Russian gangsters in New York; and propose to her Irish-born bartender husband 10 weeks after first meeting him.

Another view of the house

Through interviews with friends and family, The Independent has pieced together the tale of escape from the intolerance of the Iranian revolution and rejection by Tehran’s great American enemy, which shaped her life and likely contributed to her fragile mental state when she died.

Above all, they insist, the picture of a recluse, her once-lissome figure bloated by poor diet, is not a true representation of a woman who, through her debut and best-known novel, Pomegranate Soup, knew only too well the joys of good food and the dangers of isolation.

First published in 2005 after her marriage to a son of Mayo, the book told the story of three Iranian emigre sisters who win over the population of a fictitious community – Ballinacroagh – with the flavours of saffron, cardamom and rose water by opening a cafe, and defeat the xenophobia of the next-door irascible publican bent on driving them from town.

The novel, a food-conquers-all morality tale compared favourably by critics to Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, was an international best-seller, translated into more than a dozen languages and sold in more than 25 countries.

It was also a book born out of love.

In the late 1990s, while living in New York, Marsha one night went to Ryan’s Irish bar on Manhattan’s 2nd Avenue. She was 19 and was engaged in conversation by the bartender, Christopher Collins, who recalls that he had faced a choice of either having her thrown out for being underage or asking her out himself.

Marsha with her father in Brooklyn, 2003

The object of his desire was at the time leading a rakish, if somewhat naive existence, having travelled from Australia, where she had been living with her recently-divorced mother. In a 2005 interview, Marsha explained: “I arrived in New York with only $200 in my pocket. I worked, initially, as a hostess in a restaurant owned by Russian mobsters. There were no customers there, which I thought a bit odd at first, until I realised that the restaurant was just a front for their other dealings.”

In his first interview since his former wife’s death, Mr Collins told The Independent that their romance encapsulated the impetuous and impulsive nature of the woman, four years his junior, who shortly afterwards became his wife.

Speaking from Brooklyn, where he now runs a thriving bar company, the Irishman, who grew up an hour’s drive from Lecanvey, said: “We could tell we were right for each other. There was a synergy between us – it was nice to have somebody who was as passionate about you as you were about them.

“Everything was urgent with her. She asked me to marry her soon after we moved in. Then she said she was moving back to Australia and I should come.

“I’ve never known anyone to move through so many places or jobs as Marsha – three days, a week, a month, a year. You were never sure where you or she would be next.

“There isn’t a minute I didn’t stop loving that girl. She could drive me crazy and frustrate the hell out of me.

“Our life was always getting packed up in 40ft containers to move from one country to another. But there was a uniqueness about her. You could say I was along for the ride.”

Born in Tehran in 1977, Marsha was the daughter of an accountant, Mehran, and his wife, Shahin, a teacher, both members of Iran’s Baha’i faith, considered heretical by hardline Islam. When, a year later, the Shah’s regime began to crumble, the couple began to make plans to leave to study in America, selling their home and applying for visas.

It was a day before they had been due to collect their documents to travel that the couple heard that the US embassy in Tehran had been stormed and their hopes of travelling to the University of New Mexico perished.

Mr Mehran, who now works as an artist in Australia, says: “We did not give up. In reality, we could not afford giving up. We both had quit our jobs and sold our belongings. We could not accept defeat.

“One Friday night we were invited to a dinner party by a friend whose wife was from Chile. We encountered the ambassadors of Chile and Argentina. We discussed many things, including our interrupted plan. That is when the Argentinean ambassador kindly offered help in giving us a visa. We left within 15 days for Buenos Aires.”

This stroke of good fortune was the beginning of a peripatetic, perhaps disjointed upbringing for Marsha. In the Argentine capital, the family set up El Pollo Loco or Crazy Chicken – a Persian café and delicatessen – and by the age of four Marsha could speak Farsi, Spanish and English – the latter learned from her attendance at a Scottish private academy.

Marsha was raised by her mother in the Zoroastrian tradition of seeking foods that provided energy balance by calming the body. She once noted: “The notion of finding balance in your life is very pertinent to my life and writing.”

But while she may have sought equilibrium, it was to prove often elusive.

Political upheaval, this time in the shape of the rule of the Argentine junta, forced the family to once more move continents, this time to America after their visas were finally granted, and Marsha pursued her then dream of becoming a concert pianist in Miami.

The divorce of her parents followed, but according to both Mr Mehran and Mr Collins, it was the arbitrary removal of Marsha’s permanent residency visa for the US when she was 17, for a minor infringement, that proved the most potent disruption in her life, preventing her from settling in a country that she had come to love.

As she put it herself in an interview for Time magazine: “We have settled in Brooklyn, where of all the places I’ve been, I feel most myself. The juxtaposition of so many voices, so many souls, so many foods, so many cultures. It is in this most American of cities that I have chosen to set my roots.”

It was not to be. Because of her visa infringement, she was barred from permanent residency and she had to leave, condemned, as she saw it, to wander the globe, looking for a sense of permanency.

Mr Mehran says: “Marsha was a victim of injustice and cruelty. While America houses millions of criminals, drug dealers, illegal immigrants and false refugees, it could not find a place for a gifted, brilliant author. I know how much she suffered. She cried, she moaned, she sobbed.”

In the absence of America, the budding writer alighted upon Mayo in January last year, a world of “crazed sheep and dizzying roads”; of “peat fires and fiddle sessions”.

At the same time, she also began a darker journey. Her marriage, put in limbo by her visa problems despite the couple spending huge sums on immigration lawyers to force a change of heart from the US authorities, began to struggle and eventually ended in divorce in 2008.

What remained for her was her writing, a pursuit which those who knew her were already aware she chased to the exclusion of almost all else. Mr Collins says: “When she wrote, it was completely single-minded. For her first book, she spent three months in pyjamas and ate nothing other than Häagen-Dazs. I may as well have not been there.”

The all-consuming focus of the creative process grew stronger in her third book, The Margaret Thatcher School of Beauty, a magical-realist examination of her Iranian roots and Persian literature bound tightly with inspiration from her life in Buenos Aires as the Falklands War loomed.

For Marsha, the creative process was physically as well as mentally painful.

As she put it in a note to her father: “I’ve spent the last five months working on the edit. Hardly a night has passed that I have not woken up midway through sleep, body drenched in sweat, heart beating out the rhythms of some ancient tarantella inside my chest.

“I looked like I had aged 10 years, eyes drooping, skin ashen, a vague recollection that I had not washed my hair for a week straight.”

In an afterword to the book, published posthumously last month, Mr Mehran notes: “As far as I am aware, these conditions persisted for more than five years, ending with her death.”

Both father and ex-husband now believe that mental illness had begun to shackle Marsha’s work, causing her to neglect her well-being and withdraw herself from those who loved her while she toiled under the brooding presence of Croagh Patrick, the mountain named after Ireland’s patron saint after he fasted for 40 days on its summit.

Mr Collins says: “Marsha was battling her own demons. I think she lived some of the fantasies that she wrote and withdrew from real life. It was difficult to watch. The people she knew, she pushed away little by little. She could never accept help – it was one of her strengths and one of her greatest problems.”

In Lecanvey, with the pounding surf of the Atlantic whipping a thin salty mist over the windows of her home, it is difficult to know what happened in those final days between her message to her estate agent and death.

A post-mortem report seen by The Independent suggested that the author’s longstanding problems with inflammatory bowel disease had resulted in an imbalance in the electrolytes that keep the body hydrated.

Her father believes that the disarray of Marsha’s home, with mouldering saucepans of liquid left in rooms and possessions scattered, was evidence that she not only had withdrawn from the outside world but, when the crucial moment came, had also lost the ability to reach it.

He says: “She had been suffering from an extreme physical sickness, which suddenly overtook her ability to control her situation and her mental consciousness, in a way that she did not know what she was doing. She became so sick that she could not call out for help.”

For her grieving family, there is solace in the idea that the writer who was found sitting on the bench outside Staunton’s pub, looking up at the mountain whose “dispassionate presence is so powerful, so evocative”, had at last found somewhere that she called home. It emerged at her inquest that she had taken Irish citizenship.

Mr Collins says: “Marsha spent her life looking for a home. She had no country; no real home for so many years.

“She knew its importance and she wanted to make people smile and be happy by writing about how that was achieved. In her way, I think she also found that home in Ireland.”

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