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Laura 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 Imbued with literary and historical references, this book would appeal to teenagers and young adults.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