For the Joy of Reading: Under the Almond Tree

This is a very strange book.   To describe it as surreal is something of an understatement.   It is the story of a journey, certainly of a spiritual journey, and possibly of an actual journey.   It is the story of how Samar, a young Afghan girl, survives in her flight from Kabul to Moscow and there is also the question about whether or not she actually does survive.   You will have to decide that.

The story is told from a train on the Trans-Siberian Railway, with flashbacks to a yellow house in Kabul, where Samar’s family lived, with an almond tree in its garden.   Slowly, the tale of how Samar became a refugee begins to unfold.   During the telling of the tale, you will meet her parents and grandparents, her brothers and sisters, her friends and the friends of her family, and several really nasty and unpleasant people.   You will also discover that Samar has a really powerful imagination, and that this is one of the things that helps her to survive.

You will also discover that she is immersed in books, and that “Anna Karenina” has a very special attraction for her.   The passionate love between Anna and Vronsky appeals to her, as does the throwing of all caution to the winds.    Partly, it is because her family have to do exactly that in order to escape from the Taliban, and partly it is because she thinks, from the beginning of the book, that her mother may have had an affair.   The evidence for this is circumstantial, and you will have to decide what actually happened between Madar and Arsalan.

That is both the problem with the book and also its great strength.   You have to decide what is true and what is a product of Samar’s imagination, and, as you will discover, she certainly has an imagination.   Therefore each reader will come to a different conclusion, as they decide what did happen, and what did not happen, and therefore what is true and what is not.   Samar is, I suppose, an unreliable narrator.

Laura McVeigh says that she did not choose to write this book.   The story chose her and she had to write it.   That is true of every story and every book, in its own particular way.   You will have to decide whether or not you believe this story.



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