Book Review: Under the Almond Tree, by Laura McVeigh

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_The_almond_tree.jpgLaura McVeigh’s debut novel, Under the Almond Tree, tells the story of a refugee family leaving Kabul, Afghanistan, to escape the Taliban in the 1990s. The narrator is Samar, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on the stories of others while she and her family struggle to continue theirs. From her parents’ stories of Taliban severity after the Soviet invasion, Samar contemplates the atrocities of militant regimes and their destructive ideologies.

The repercussions of the Taliban presence impinge individual freedom. Samar’s affected family is represented, therefore, as a microcosm of a fracturing, imploding society. Apart from inflicting pain and death, the surveillant Taliban regime also severs family ties by sowing seeds of distrust and hatred. Consequently, Samar’s mother (Madar/Azita) and father (Baba/Dil) face many challenges as they strive to protect Samar and her siblings Omar, Ara, Javad, Little Arsalan, and Sitara. The novel also explores the influence of cultural standards and norms on relationships, and conveys a yearning for the past freedoms of Afghan women in particular, such as education and personal liberty, before the Taliban came about.

To cope with the destruction of her homeland and family, Samar finds strength through her talent for storytelling, which equips her with a passion for instilling hope by creating new lives for her family and for herself. What she learns is that while the Taliban can oppress women by banning their education and imposing stringent rules on their manner of dress and daily affairs, they can never take away the intangible, the universal, and the ideals of hope, love and beauty. Such a world lies in the pages of her encyclopedia, grammar books, poetry anthology, travel guides, and her favourite Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina.

Under the Almond Tree is an emotional, descriptive, and wistful story about the power of ideas and stories, depicted as a form of quiet resistance. Imbued with literary and historical references, this book would appeal to teenagers and young adults. I particularly recommend it to those who have read a thematically similar novel, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief: a story of resilience which takes place in the same century but in a different place and time.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

Under the Almond Tree
By Laura McVeigh
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9781473640849

Book Review: One Woman’s War and Peace, by Wing Commander Sharon Bown

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cv_one_womans_war_and_peaceWhen Sharon Bown, nee Cooper, a young Registered Nurse from Tasmania joined the Royal Australian Air Force it was with the goal of providing humanitarian aid to the world, as a Nursing Officer. During her eleven years of service she served in East Timor, Bali and Afghanistan working to save the lives of others, but almost losing her own.

Her autobiography is a very powerful, courageous story of a very determined young woman who survived a helicopter crash that left her with a shattered jaw and broken back, while deployed in Timor.

“On the ninth day of my hospital admission I was finally allowed out of bed and introduced to the ‘old lady body’ that was now mine as I had to learn to walk again”. With grit and determination Sharon worked hard with her own rehabilitation and after five months, was able to stop wearing the back brace which had supported her for months.

When the Air force was asked to provide AME support to the evacuation of Australians following the Bali bombing in 2005, Sharon was relieved to be asked if she was ‘available to deploy’?

Following this she spent a year as an Aide-de–camp to the Chief of the Defence Force working in Canberra for Dr Brendan Nelson, during which time she received promotion to Squadron Leader.

Back in Townsville, Bown worked as a Military Support Officer, providing specific advice to ADF members and their families such as bereavement support, arrangement of military funerals and assisting with the deceased estates administration. A year into this two-year posting, Bown was asked to return to Air Force Health where her leadership skills saw her deployed to Tarin Kot, Afghanistan

Bown has written with great honesty sharing her inner-most feelings of despair, especially when children could not be saved, as well as the physical and mental effects of her accident. Some time after her return home to Australia, she was diagnosed with post –traumatic stress disorder. In 2015, Bown was discharged from the Royal Australian Air Force as medically unfit from a job she loved and which had seen her rise to the rank of Wing Commander.

I thoroughly enjoyed this inspirational story which is well written and beautifully presented on glossy pages. The inclusion of a number of quality photographs compliments the story and the last photo introduces the reader to Bown’s husband Conway, and her two sons Tiberius and Austin.

Bown continues to live in Townsville and is highly sought after to speak of her unique experiences during her service career.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

One Woman’s and Peace
by Wing Commander Sharon Bown
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781925335316

Book Review: Fits & Starts, by Andrew Johnston

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cv_fits_and_startsIn Fits & Starts, people are more or less on their own; sometimes they’re trying to find their way back to an approximation of intimacy they once knew. More often, they are coming to terms with life alone: ‘Sometimes the wind carries her voice;/sometimes she has to carry it herself.’ (From the poem Judges)

Throughout the Echo in Limbo poems, the character Echo wanders a landscape trying to recognise herself in its changes:

But you were always hunting
for something that wasn’t there.

Grace, a trace,
mettle, an element.

Something almost.
Something near.

The poem Numbers also illustrates Johnston’s language play – his surprising rhymes, homonyms, incongruous nursery-rhyme rhythms – which adds light to the bleakness. There is also a pick-up-sticks game of references throughout the Echo in Limbo poems: they are named after the books of the Old Testament, but their content is classical myth, evolution, ravaged forests and fluorescent lights.

Echo returns in the final section of poems, Do You Read Me?, which are named – as she is – after the radio alphabet. They are placed in the man-made world rather than the natural one, and they are lighter, more playful, while exploring similar themes. In the poem Lima there ‘Comes a day – hey hey – you know you’ll never go/some places in your life and one is Lima.’ But for me these poems aren’t as successful. Sometimes their playfulness strikes me as silly (‘I left myself in the lurch//from yackety-yack to yada yada/from roughly something to simply nada’) rather than illuminating, but perhaps I’m more compelled to angst than absurdity.

But there’s plenty of angst to please me. Throughout the book we are shown the constancy of life, where that constancy is a world which finds ways to keep destroying itself over and over. Johnston portrays a world like that paradoxical river: always flowing, but never the same. In one of the stand-out poems for me, he turns this on its head, showing human history as an ebb and flow the land has long accepted:

I remember this,
said the river:

The snow will melt,
the poppies will grow,

the opium will be harvested.
The foreigners will come,

the foreigners will go.
It will begin to snow.

For me, the book explores how destructive (how inevitably, unavoidably destructive) life is, on an individual human scale as well as a geographic and historical one. There are some beautiful, brutal metaphors here:

… when one glass is full

and one glass empty, the hand will
take the empty glass and smash it.
(I Chronicles)

At the same time the poems insist that we just accept it and get on with things – with the inconsequential human stuff; with living. To live, and to know ourselves, we must exist on the baseline of futility.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Fits & Starts
by Andrew Johnston
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776560615