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Customer Review

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars FLAWED BUT INTERESTING, 14 Nov. 2012
This review is from: The Almond Tree (Paperback)
The Almond Tree; Review

This novel has been awarded five stars on amazon.com and given laudatory reviews, but this is the first review on amazon.co.uk. I think the book is more likely to appeal to a US than a British readership, though I would still recommend British readers to try it out and would be interested to know what they think of it.

Though the author is an American Jewish woman, the novel is narrated in the first person by an Israeli Palestinian man in his sixties, Ichmad Hamid, who tells us the story of his life from his boyhood. One of Corasanti's main aims is to give a human face to the statistics about killings of children, house demolitions, and the many other human rights abuses suffered by the Palestinians. In doing this she is very much to be commended. Evidently this human story has affected many people who previously had only considered the Israeli Jewish point of view - people such as Les Edgerton, a tutor on one of the 21 writing courses she attended in the course of working on this novel (again, going on 21 writing courses seems very American and not very British). Edgerton has written that, as a Christian Zionist, he initially disagreed entirely with the narrative, but came to realise that "there are always two sides to a question".

To sum up the plot very briefly: Ichmad's family go through terrible experiences - among other disasters, two baby sisters are killed, the family home is demolished and their father is wrongly imprisoned. Their mother is implacably opposed to Israeli Jews as a result of this suffering. In contrast, their father is a saintly figure who refuses to hate his oppressors, only saying "if they only could realise that we're all the same". Ichmad's younger brother Abbas identifies with the mother and ends up in Gaza as a member of Hamas. Ichmad, in contrast, is very much influenced by the father. Ichmad is a genius at maths and physics and wins a competition, which means that he gets to study at the Hebrew University. There he makes friends with Israeli Jewish students. He initially has a terrible relationship with his tutor, called Professor Menachem Sharon (a name that seems intentionally to be a mixture of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon). But Ichmad and Menachem begin to work together on discoveries in nanotechnology and become friends. They go to America together and in the end they are awarded jointly the Nobel Prize for Physics.

As a member of the Executive of Jews for Justice for Palestinians (though I am writing this in a personal capacity)I very much appreciate the service Corasanti has performed towards the Palestinians in making people aware of their story, and I think there are positive aspects to the book. It has a strong narrative drive. Though I disagree with another reviewer's opinion that the book is "beautifully written"- on the contrary I find its style rather crude and cliched - it has a certain raw energy and vitality. But I have three main problems with it. One is that, in piling on this one Palestinian family more or less all the human rights abuses committed by Israel against the Palestinians, Corasanti tends to go overboard with graphic accounts of blood and gore. This may be the only way to get through to die-hard supporters of the Israeli government, but it seems to me that this "shock and awe" strategy also has a desensitising effect and lessens the impact. The second problem is that the attitude of "two sides to a question" and emphasising the importance of dialogue and friendship,though of course admirable as far as it goes, tends to be limited and flawed. After all,Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish evoked tremendous sympathy in Israel after the horrifying deaths of his three daughters and niece during Israel's brutal attack on Gaza in 2008-9, but this did not change the political support that the Israeli public gave to the assault on Gaza. In her review in the Guardian of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish's deeply moving book "I Shall Not Hate", Ghada Karmi admires his continued belief that the conflict can be solved by dialogue and friendships between Palestinians and Israelis, but points out that this rapprochement has limited effect:

"Not everyone will share his conclusion that friendly dialogue with the enemy is the best course. A vogue for such dialogue between Jews and Palestinians grew up during the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords. The argument went that it was the leaders on both sides who were at fault, not their people, who just wanted peace. Many were hopeful of this approach to solving the conflict. All these attempts were flawed, however by the assumption of equivalence between the two sides and by the failure to acknowledge that understanding and friendship come after the end of conflict, not before....and sadly, such a valiant attempt to bridge the divide has failed to stop Israel's colonisation and oppression of the Palestinians."

It is true that at the end of "The Almond Tree", in his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize, Professor Menachem Sharon does put forward a political solution, saying "a secular democratic state across all of historic Palestine, with equal rights for all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs, is the only way there will be real peace." But - leaving aside the unanswered question of how Menachem, for all his friendship with Ichmad, has reached this extreme position (and also surely it is very unlikely that a Nobel Prize award audience would react with "the thunder of a cheering crowd" to this solution) - this viewpoint dovetails into what I find the most problematic aspect of the book - my third problem: its main message.

Corasanti writes of her novel: "the message is clear: we must work together to advance humanity". Ichmad and Menachem are extolled as having "advanced humanity" by their discoveries in nanotechnology. But I am left wondering whether nanotechnology really does advance the human race. Many scientists have pointed out the dangers to humanity in nanotechnology. And is this really a great cultural step forward for the human race - to quote from the speech given at the end of the novel by the presenter of the Nobel Prize: "in addition to enhanced storage capabilities and improved computer chips, their discovery could improve sensors, satellites and much more....the atomic storage they developed for the individual atom allows us to store 5,000 full-length movies or more than 1,000 trillion bits of data, in a device the size of an Ipod"? The vision behind this novel is disturbingly close to that of books such as Shimon Peres's "The New Middle East" or Thomas L. Friedman's "The World is Flat": a world in which national identities are subordinated to US-led globalised technology and business.

A very interesting character in the novel in this respect is Yasmine, Ichmad's second wife, a young Palestinian girl from his village who comes to live with him in America. She has been chosen for him by his mother, who, as the book progresses, becomes a more and more negative figure, symbolising all the forces that the novel is against: hatred, intolerance, tribalism. At first, Ichmad identifies Yasmine with his mother and compares her unfavourably with his first wife, a blonde Jewish American peace activist called Nora, who, like Rachel Corrie, has been killed by a bulldozer while trying to prevent a house demolition (Ichmad's mother had been adamantly opposed to her son's marriage with a Jewish woman). Though Ichmad had been enraptured by Nora's embroidered Palestinian-style dresses, he disapproves of Yasmine's traditional robes - "she wore a black robe with red geometric embroidery on the front panel - just like Mama's" - and insists (with evident authorial approval) that she should wear Western clothes. Only then is he struck by "how pretty she looked". At the end of the book, we are told that the middle-aged Yasmine is wearing a "bright yellow ruffle-collared raincoat that she had bought in Paris and....tight black trousers. Thanks to Pilates and power yoga, Yasmine remained fit." Yasmine goes into business with Justice, Menachem's American Jewish peace activist wife: "Ten years earlier, Justice and Yasmine had opened a Middle Eastern bakery called 'Pastries for Peace'. They donated all the proceeds to a programme they'd developed that granted micro-loans to Palestinian women interested in starting businesses." Not that Palestinian women shouldn't start businesses - but taken together with everything else, this seems part of the general globalised vision. For all the author's genuine empathy with the Palestinians, it is clear that Yasmine symbolises the mother - and by extension all Palestinian women and indeed the whole of Palestinian culture - remade in the image of US-led globalisation.Even the saintly father's words "we're all the same" fit into this homogeneous vision. And Abbas's son becomes a suicide bomber only after his visa application to study in America is refused - it is taken for granted that all young Palestinians want to go to the United States.

And it seems to me that Menachem's vision of "a secular democratic state across all of historic Palestine, with equal rights for all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs" is also part of this downplaying of national cultures and identities. A completely unified state which gave no recognition to two very distinct national groups - Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs - (in contrast to a bi-national or federated state) would surely only exacerbate national tensions, just as globalisation tends to produce increased nationalism and fundamentalism as a form of protest and compensation.

In conclusion: I found this book to be a mixture of positive elements and aspects that seem to me to be very problematic. But it was certainly very interesting, or I wouldn't have felt moved to write such a long review! So I recommend people to read it and see what they think.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Dec 2012 17:11:09 GMT
Excellent review, and you have made some very interesting points, which have informed my own reading of the novel.

Posted on 31 Jan 2013 19:53:23 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 28 Feb 2013 03:42:12 GMT]

Posted on 28 Feb 2013 14:39:15 GMT
This is a thoughtful review. I agree that Ichmad's attitude does seem a little too Pollyannish for the average Brit to stomach. Years ago Arthur Koestler debunked dialogue and friendly overtures as a solution to the Arab/Jew in his novel `Thief in the Night' by placing those sentiments in the mouths of characters drawn as caricatures deliberately to lose the reader's sympathy. There are, however, people lucky enough to be blessed with the right temperament who can put this attitude into practice even in the midst of national conflict to the benefit of individuals. And that is worthwhile even if it doesn't solve the major conflict.
Incidentally when can a major conflict ever be called finally resolved. I am thinking of Ireland and South Africa where trouble still flares up, and yet where people with Pollyanna instincts have done a lot of good.
To digress from the novel and reply to another remark you made in your review, I know plenty of British people who have attended more than 21 writing courses, myself among them. I feel now that I might have done better saving the money to put towards a whole novel critique from The Literary Consultancy.

Posted on 10 Jun 2014 08:37:58 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 Jun 2014 08:39:08 BDT
Daisy says:
I do agree with a lot of your review. Especially in the instances of the shocking descriptions blood and gore, where I skipped paragraphs. I am disappointed with reviewers who have told the whole story leaving nothing for the reader to discover.
Lots of books tackle difficult subjects, receive great reviews but usually reviewers don't share all the major incidents of the story. What is the point of reading on when I already know that Ichmad marries the girl he meets. And then marries a second time.
I could recommend this book as a story of the stark reality of the issues we hear about on the news. Stories which are sanitised before they are broadcast. I really felt for Ichmad and his family, particularly his mother.
Ichmad and Baba's reaction to anger, hate and death is to be lauded. Their reaction in the face of atrocity and death takes great courage. This kind of passivity is a strength not a weakness. To call it Pollyannish is making light of the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2014 13:31:28 BDT
Dear B.A Woodford,

Apologies for having revealed the whole plot! It comes from having studied English literature. I forgot I was reviewing a book that people had not yet read and instead wrote it like someone writing an essay about a book everyone knows. I will remember this in future when reviewing a novel that has just been published.

all the best,

Deborah

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2014 13:55:56 BDT
Daisy says:
Dear Deborah,
Thank you for replying. I will be reading the book to the end today but I am disappointed that I know what will happen.
I would be interested to know what you feel about the book being compared to The Kite Runner.
Best wishes,

Bren

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2014 14:02:04 BDT
Dear Bren,

I haven't yet read The Kite Runner, but will get back to you when I have done so.....from a quick glance at it on line at the Amazon site, it looks very much better-written than The Almond Tree.

Again, my sincere apologies for the spoilers in my review.
all the best,

Deborah
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