Please Note: This review discusses suicide bombings, terror organisations, and violence against refugees, particularly children. In light of recent and ongoing attacks happening worldwide, I understand if this review is distressing as a result of its sensitive subject matter and I understand if you are not currently in the right emotional or mental space to continue to read this review. I have approached my review of The Orange Grove with the deepest respect for all victims of suicide bombings, terror attacks and other acts of senseless violence, and I send all my love to the victims of these attacks worldwide.
Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove is one of those books that change you. It fundamentally changes how you think and feel about a major contemporary issue. But it is also a book that makes you feel conflicted about that change, largely because that issue here is suicide bombings.
This book follows the story of young twins Ahmed and Aziz, who live with their parents and grandparents next to the family’s orange grove in the shade of the mountains. However, when their grandparents die as a result of a bomb being dropped on their house, the family is forced to confront the violence of the country’s civil war. A local militant group comes to the house to recruit one of the boys to strap on a belt of explosives and detonate it on the other side of the mountain, taking not only the lives of the believed bombers of their grandparents house, but also their own life. The catch: their parents have to decide which of their nine year old sons to sacrifice for the cause, the healthy Ahmed, or the terminally ill Aziz.
I’ll be honest. It was hard to read this book. Not because it wasn’t a good book, but because it was a brilliant book about something that is terribly and heartbreakingly real – the problem of violence committed by people who believe that their violent acts are justified and necessary.
I want to make it clear that in no way does this book justify suicide bombings, or indeed any other act of violence. Instead, it makes readers think about the term ‘victim’ in a more nuanced way, including those who are deliberately misled and coerced into committing acts of violence on behalf of organised terror groups in that victim label. When one of these boys walks over the mountain to blow himself and the believed perpetrators of his grandparents death, he is just as much a victim of the violence as the victims of his explosives belt. Especially since he and his family have deliberately been misled to think that the other side of the mountain holds military warehouses that are used to destroy the citizens on the orange grove side.
The other side of the mountain holds a refugee camp.
After sacrificing their son for what they had been led to believe was an act of rebellion against military brutality, the family is then left to live with the knowledge of what their son’s death was really for – the push for power by the leader of the local terror group. And that makes any reader’s heart break. You know from the way this family speaks to each other, how they love their community and how much they want peace, that they had no idea they were being misled. You can’t help but realise they are just as much victims as any person on the other side of the mountain – pawns in someone else’s game.
I am always interested in reading books from the perspectives of characters that have traditionally been rendered as side characters or background noise in novels. By taking this family, particularly the two boys Ahmed and Aziz, and positioning them as both perpetrators of violence and also victims of the local terror group, Tremblay has forced us to take a more nuanced look at how we view acts of violence worldwide. The victim/perpetrator binary is a far too simplistic way to discuss these events, and by breaking down the binary and forcing a discussion about the long lasting effects of these events on both sides of any act of violence, we are better positioned to consider solutions to these acts.
Beyond the violence, this book is about brotherhood, about the bond between Ahmed and Aziz, and about the love they have for each other. Both of them is scared for the other, and yet, it is the sacrifice of one brother in the name of the other that ultimately defines this book. I won’t reveal which brother dies, but I will say that perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the whole book comes from the brother who survives. For anyone who reads this books, you will find that the last section of this book from the perspective of the twenty year old survivor who leaves his home country for a better life is the hardest to read. Living with survivor’s guilt, and the knowledge that his twin died killing innocent people, it is the monologue that concludes the book that perhaps gives the greatest insight into the devastation of victimhood and pain. The final words that echo after the turn of the last page still haunt me:
“Do you hear me?”
Because we don’t often hear the people on the other side, the people who have been consistently demonised by media because of their actions. Yes, terrorism, suicide bombing and other acts of violence are awful events, but we are never the only victims. And we need to be careful about who we blame for these events. After reading this book, it is clear that in the circumstances of The Orange Grove, the leader of the local terror group deliberately lying to local families is the one who is responsible for all the pain, violence and death – but in real life, it is not always so simple to see this. So we need to be careful. Not all people who press the button want to be there, and not all of them know who they are ‘fighting’.
This is an extremely complex and compelling book by a Canadian author whose work I will continue to follow, and I encourage you to read this incredible book if only to challenge your conception of the victim/perpetrator binary. As always, I want to make mention of the incredible work of the translator of this novel, Sheila Fischman, who translated this book from Quebec French into English for Peirene Press. Without translator such as Fischman, so much work from non-English speaking writers would be lost to us and I am incredibly grateful for their work.
Of course, the experiences shown in this book do not represent the circumstances of all terror attacks or suicide bombings, and in the wake of recent events, I feel it is especially important to make it clear that this book is not representative of the backstory of every instigator of violent attacks. But, nonetheless, I think that this book should be read as part of our self-education, particularly at a time where media representations of the ‘other’ are becoming increasingly political and difficult to navigate.
Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove is available from June 2017 in all good bookstores, or directly from Peirene Press. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores and support independent press.
Thank you once again to Peirene Press for sending me a copy of The Orange Grove. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.
© Hayley New 2017