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Under the Almond Tree

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Under the Almond Tree is a really brave novel. Laura McVeigh writes from the perspective of a teenage Afghan refugee - Samar - remembering a past life in Afghanistan before landing up shuttling backwards and forwards on the Trans-Siberian railway. Self-evidently, this is not autobiography and McVeigh may have opened herself up to accusations of cultural appropriation. The novel is also brave in the way it runs two parallel narrative streams - the present day set on the train and the past set (mostly) in Afghanistan - and rather than the usual bringing the threads together at the end, pretty much lets one overwrite the other. 


The execution of the novel, though, is pretty much flawless and fully justifies the huge risk. 


That does not mean that this is an easy book. It is intense, which makes it hard to read in long bursts and tends to make it quite hard to pick the book up again. For the first half, I wondered where it was all going and thought it might be another standard piece of refugee misery fiction. But something clicked at the half way point; the back story started to become gripping; the characters started to coalesce into three dimensions; and the train narrative started to intrigue. That was the point the novel stopped being hard to pick up and became hard to put down. 


Samar's voice becomes really haunting. At times she is sad, at times she is hopeful. She is never self-pitying yet still comes across as young and deeply vulnerable. She has seen the worst of humanity, yet she spends her time writing about her family playing games along the length of the train, stepping off at stations to buy food from the platform vendors, forming dangerous liaisons with the western tourists... There is a sense of purpose and direction, even if the purpose itself is not always clear.


The story itself is illuminating; we see a once proud nation descend into chaos, first through the encroachment of Soviet troops and later through the encroachment of religious fundamentalism. This is handled well, and kept in proportion. We see people trying to go about their normal lives in spite of the incursions; we see them trying to normalise the situation in their own minds. When tragedies come, they are as likely to be caused by natural disaster as by war; yet when war does change the course it does so in truly devastating ways. 


Under the Almond Tree also conveys a great sense of place. I know the Trans-Siberian railway and the detail is spot on. I don't know Afghanistan or the Central Asian republics, but the novel is convincing and conveys, in particular, a sense of scale and barrenness. 


The people all feel real; whether it is Samar and her immediate family - her sister Are, her brothers Javed and Omar, her parents and grandparents - or whether it is the minor characters - the truck drivers, the refugee camp medics, the teacher, the Taliban commander, the provodnitsya on the train. Every one if them feels solid, genuine and complex. 


This is a really terrific novel and as it unfolds, it becomes clear just how delicate a feat of narration it pulls off. This is not quite like any other novel I can think of. 



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