“Do You Hear Me?”: A Review of Larry Tremblay’s ‘The Orange Grove’

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.

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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

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As Complex as Stars: A Review of ‘The Last Summer’

The pen might be mightier than the sword, but the typewriter is a loaded bomb.

Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer tells the story of the Governor of St Petersburg and his family following his decision to close the state university due to student unrest during the early twentieth century. The family soon receives a death threat, so they hire a bodyguard for the Governor – but even the bodyguard has a secret agenda, and it may cost the Governor his life.

The Last Summer is a novel made up completely of letters sent between the family members, and from Lyu, the young bodyguard to his friend Konstantin. The choice to structure the novel like this was surprising at first, but a unique way of telling a story such as this. Most novels I have read surrounding the early stirrings of the Russian Revolution have relied on action and dialogue, but to have this story completely rendered through letters gave a depth of insight into each character that I have not encountered in a novel about political and social unrest as this.

I haven’t read an epistolary novel like this in a long time, and even then, most of the epistolary novels I have read have only been framed by letters, rather than told completely by them. The short format of this novel allows for these letters to tell the whole story uninterrupted without seeming too dense, and I think that is why this story works so well. If the novel had been longer, I don’t think that this format would have worked, but the concise writing and cleverly hid details show that Huch really knew what she was doing.

I won’t lie – this book still requires serious concentration while reading it. Part of this is because of the book’s reliance on correspondence to tell the story, and unless you are really paying attention, you can easily forget who is writing to whom and why the little details they share with each other are important. But if I am going to be honest, part of the reason I needed to concentrate so hard was due to the characters’ unfamiliar names. Given that I am not so great at picking up Russian names, I found the letters hard to follow in some places, simply because I was confused as to who was who, but once I picked it up, I had no issues whatsoever.

Whilst this is a novel that centres on the aftermath of highly charged political events in the early twentieth century, it is clear that this novel is largely about people – how they interact with one another, how families are changed by individual action and how they choose their loyalties. This theme comes through particularly strong with Lyu, who despite his goals, quickly became my favourite character. Although we hear from Lyu less frequently than the family he has infiltrated, it is him we see most often, and by seeing him through the eyes of others, we get the greatest picture of him. Whilst he is ultimately plotting the assassination of the Governor, it is clear that in his plotting, he deeply cares for the family. He is one of the most flawed yet most empathetic characters I have come across, and it was strange to feel such empathy for the character committing the novel’s bad deeds. Unlike most books about class clashes, neither the Governor’s upper class family or the students and their supporters are written as the ‘bad guys’, and it is exactly this sentiment that underpins the novel. It is impossible to choose a side in the novel simply because we know both sides too well to see the other as undeniably wrong. Both sides are incredibly complexly constructed, forcing the reader to confront the complexity of human behaviour and action. It reminds me of something author John Green is known for saying – “We have to imagine people complexly” – and Huch has succeeded in making her readers notice how incredibly complex human relationships and loyalties are in the grand scheme of human behaviour.

Towards the end of the novel, Lyu writes perhaps my favourite line in the whole novel:

“We have as little power over people as we do over the stars; we see them rise and set according to their engrained laws.”

For me, that is exactly what The Last Summer is about – trying to understand the people around you and realising that you have precisely no power to do so. It is amazing that in such a short novel, Huch has accomplished something that many authors take hundreds of pages to say. People are complex creatures, and nothing is quite clear about them except that they only become more complex the closer you look.

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The Last Summer is available 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 Last Summer. 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

Pass The Gugelhupf – A Review of ‘The Empress and The Cake’

cw: Addiction, Eating Disorders, Abusive Relationships

Linda Stift’s The Empress and The Cake is the latest release from Peirene Press, masters of translated European novellas.

The Empress and The Cake follows a young lady who becomes entangled in the grasp of a strange elderly lady with a mysterious past and a penchant for emotional manipulation. Soon after being tempted by the offer of half a Gugelhupf, the young narrator is manipulated into museum raids and destructive behaviour, only to see herself start to unravel before failing to escape the abusive nature of the relationship.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the dynamic between the central characters. Not only is it brilliant to see a novel that is so centralised around women – in fact there are very few men in this novel at all – but these women are built so complexly. It shouldn’t be such a shock to the system to read a book so dedicated to them, but with this book in particular, the way in which the women are written with so much power and complexity is utterly intoxicating.

The narrator herself is perhaps the most interesting of the women. Stift’s narrator, whilst speaking so clearly to the reader about her experiences and thoughts, still holds so much mystery. I am not used to having the narrator of a novel keep secrets from me, and the deliberate withholding of information played brilliantly into the novel’s themes and plot. Even after finishing the book, I have so many questions. Who is the narrator? Why is she so insular and isolated?

And Charlotte – who is she? The narrator constantly mentions her like we should know who she is, but we never do. Is she their sister? Their friend? Their lover?

But my questions extend beyond the narrator: Who is Frau Hohenembs? Is she the Empress? Did she know the Empress? Or is she just some imposter? How did she start this scheme of hers? Is Ida the first to fall for it, or have there been more before now?

Another thing that fascinates me about The Empress and The Cake, is the blunt and unabashed way it discusses addiction and addictive behaviour. The parallels between the two addictions in this novel – the repetitive over eating and punishing rituals and the constant return to an abusive relationship – are hard to miss. The narrator’s discussion of bulimia, whilst not naming the eating disorder directly, is without a doubt one of the most confronting I have read in fiction. The doubling of the addictive behaviour – the bulimia and the addictive subservience to the emotionally abusive Frau Hohenembs – is entwined throughout the whole novel, and makes the characters seem more mysterious. We have so little history of them, and yet, here they are, wrapped up in one of the most complex mental states. Furthermore, the description of the central relationship and its abusive behaviour and its effects on those involved is incredibly nuanced. The failure of the narrator and Ida to escape the hold of Frau Hohenembs despite their best efforts is perhaps the most honest representation of the destructive and impossible situation that an abusive relationship presents – no matter how much you want to escape, it is not always that easy.

This book is so incredibly mysterious and complex, and I am definitely going to go for a re-read soon to try and decode this strange modern Austrian fable. My review does not do it any justice, so I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book as soon as you can.

 

The Empress and The Cake is available in all good bookstores, or directly from Peirene PressAs 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 Empress and The Cake. 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 2016