Tuesday 21 November 2017

A timeless meditation on plight of the refugee

Fiction: Under the Almond Tree, Laura McVeigh, Two Roads, pbk, 320 pages, €13.99

Laura McVeigh: The Northern Irish author is a former director of Pen International and the Global Girls Fund
Laura McVeigh: The Northern Irish author is a former director of Pen International and the Global Girls Fund
Under the Almond Tree

Reliving the story of war from the vantage point of a person on the cusp of adulthood is a careworn storytelling device, but for good reason.

As narratives go, it's an effective and affecting one: the juxtaposition between a coming-of-age tale, a childhood revoked and the indecency and brutality of war and displacement.

Some, like John Boyne, Sara Novic or Vera Leinvebers, write the young wartime narrator with aplomb, deploying a perfect economy of prose.

And here, Northern Irish writer Laura McVeigh, former director of Pen International and the Global Girls Fund, is set to join their esteemed ranks.

Her heroine Samar is ripped from her home life and adolescence in 1990s Afghanistan, along with her six siblings and extended family. Now 15 and living in Kabul after the Soviet invasion, they are forced into the life of the refugee.

In some ways, her family have always known a life on the run. Since their parents first met, they have been mismatched outsiders, her mother giving birth to her first child on a snowy cliff-side off a highway. But now, with the Taliban advancing towards their home, the middle-class family find themselves on the Trans-Siberian Express and making their way to Russia, her yellow house and the calming idyll of the almond tree in her backyard receding from mind.

In a taut and tense succession of devastating events, Samar's family, headed by the enigmatic mother Azita, endure much. From their eldest brother/son Omar going missing, assumed taken by the Taliban, to a devastating earthquake, their journey towards a new life - "the perfect daydream to unwrap" - is fraught with peril, tragedy and loss.

Still, Samar finds refuge in her own evergreen imagination, and it's here, among the heroes she reads about, like Napoleon and Anna Karenina, that she finds the resilience needed to endure her seemingly interminable train ride, with its stuffy carriages and smells of "warm bodies" all the way to Russia. Amid the atrocities, and even when she uncovers the complexities of her own family (and with six siblings, two parents, grandparents, aunts and cousins, the complexities are plentiful), Samar remains spirited. Even as her own reality keeps shifting underneath her feet, Samar is a compelling, vivid companion. Her dream is to be a writer, and even in some of her more perilous moments, she wants to make sure that the memories don't slip through her fingers.

"I have always enjoyed this part of the journey the most - the passing through of places where one would never wish to stay but that hold a strange, eerie beauty all of their own," she reflects. "There, with the heavens open wide above, streaked with silent stars and constellations, so vast and beautiful, then I would feel that our journey was not purposeless after all."

Even as a debut novelist, it's a testament to McVeigh's sleight of hand that she manages to convey both the youngster's innocent, hopeful view of war and the interiority and courage of the refugee. Is this because the author grew up in the North with conflict on her own doorstep? Is it because she can recall with clarity a child's confusion of conflict? Or is it because she has spent much of her career engaged in human rights issues? Either way, McVeigh writes with true authority, not to mention sensitivity, about the Afghan conflict, and her tale about war and displacement 20 years ago rings ever-more resonant for today's reader. Calling to mind in some places the élan in which Marita Conlon-McKenna conveyed the horrors of the Famine without ever over-egging it, Under the Almond Tree is something of a publishing coup: a beautiful fiction book that can straddle the Young Adult (YA) and adult markets.

The fuss-free narration and clippy metering of Under the Almond Tree isn't without its delicious turns of phrase. It is also slick with profundity and moments that, despite their brutality, invite the reader to savour them on the tongue, to turn them over and over in the mind. McVeigh's writing style not only puts us right in the mind of a teenager, but its occasional brevity leaves plenty of space between the lines for the atrocities to hit the reader at full pelt.

McVeigh also throws an unsettling revelation into the plot, which turns the story clean on its axis.

As a meditation on war, loss, hope and the plight of the refugee, Under the Almond Tree is as indispensable as it is timeless. This, and McVeigh's indomitable, wonder-filled heroine, make this a truly essential read.

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