Sunday, January 10, 2021

Review: When the Apricots Bloom

Title: When the Apricots Bloom
Author: Gina Wilkinson

Publisher: 1st January 2021 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 320 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: fiction, contemporary, cultural Iraq

My Rating: 5 cups


Inspired by her own experiences in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule, Gina Wilkinson’s evocative, suspenseful debut is told through the eyes of three very different women confronting the limits of friendship and forgiveness, and the strength of a mother’s love.

At night, in Huda’s fragrant garden, a breeze sweeps in from the desert encircling Baghdad, rustling the leaves of her apricot trees and carrying warning of visitors at her gate. Huda, a secretary at the Australian embassy, lives in fear of the mukhabarat—the secret police who watch and listen for any scrap of information that can be used against America and its allies. They have ordered her to befriend Ally Wilson, the deputy ambassador’s wife. Huda has no wish to be an informant, but fears for her teenaged son, who may be forced to join a deadly militia. Nor does she know that Ally has dangerous secrets of her own.

Huda’s former friend, Rania, enjoyed a privileged upbringing as the daughter of a sheikh. Now her family’s wealth is gone, and Rania too is battling to keep her child safe and a roof over their heads. As the women’s lives intersect, their hidden pasts spill into the present. Facing possible betrayal at every turn, all three must trust in a fragile, newfound loyalty, even as they discover how much they are willing to sacrifice to protect their families.

My Thoughts

“So please tell us,” said Abu Issa, “how are your relations progressing with the foreign woman?”  “I’m doing my best. These matters take time.”                 

“In a perfect world, we could wait until the apricots bloom.  Alas, the world is not perfect.” 

What a revelation this book turned out to be! Gina Wilkinson was inspired by the time she spent in Baghdad whilst under the reign of Saddam Hussein and has produced a telling tale of life under this once brutal regime. Seen through the eyes of three women - two Iraqi and one Australian - it made for addictive reading.

The writing is exceptional for a first time novelist as both plot, characters and location are rich in their detail. Firstly, the plot is complex and a complete eye opener as to the harsh reality of mere existence in Hussein’s Iraq. It was brutal. 

‘But he doesn’t want democracy, he wants a regime of a different kind. One where men have all the power. He wants Iraq to be the sort of country where a woman can be stoned to death because she had the misfortune to be raped.” Rania jammed a cigarette between her lips. “It's madness.”

Secondly, the characters, both main and secondary, are real and flawed. Your heart goes out especially to Huda and Rania and the lengths they go to in protecting the ones they love. The themes are diverse yet cleverly interwoven - everything from friendship, loyalty and trust, to fear, intimidation and betrayal. The two Iraqi women in particular, have difficult and life changing choices to make. 

Thirdly, it was as if Iraq itself was a character. I had no idea about life pre or post the Hussein regime and what a revelation it was to be given a small window into life there. From an Iraq that was free and bountiful, filled with beauty and elegance, to one of corruption and so much history destroyed. This was a definite highlight in reading this book for me. 

‘... there was a gap in Iraqi history ... it was as if time, and collective memory itself, stopped when Saddam seized power, when war, sanctions, and tyranny brought the cosmopolitan “golden years” to a bloody end. Nowadays, there was only the glorious past or the future. The pain that came in between, no one spoke of aloud.’

When the Apricots Bloom is an amazing debut read - one that I would highly recommend. Reading the author’s notes at the end was revealing and to turn the final page with an appreciation that we are all the same no matter race or creed. Friendship and love of family knows no borders. 

‘Huda had thought she was so smart, that she could type a few letters, take the foreigners’ money, and manage the mukhabarat too. She’d ignored the voice inside her whispering, 'You're playing with fire.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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