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Book review: Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi

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By Simon Demetriou 

It’s strange to be able to say that a novel would be better if it were longer, but also that it would be better if it were shorter. The fact that you can justifiably say both these things about Jokha Alharthi’s third novel, Bitter Orange Tree, sums up why it makes for a sadly unsatisfying read.

The book is narrated by Zuhour, an Omani student currently studying in a nameless British town where it seems to be constantly snowing. While in this town, she seems to spend most of her time dreaming and reminiscing about her recently deceased adoptive grandmother, Bint Aamir, who planted and tended the eponymous bitter orange tree, and who spent her life tending children and land that did not belong to her.

Zuhour also drinks a lot of coffee. First, with Suroor and Kuhl, two sisters from an elite Pakistani family that Zuhour befriends. Then, with Kuhl and her peasant-turned-medical-student lover, Imran, with whom Kuhl has contracted an illicit temporary marriage. From this latter coffee-drinking arrangement there arises an imaginary love-triangle wherein Zuhour feels an obscurely characterised, unrequited love for both Kuhl and Imran. This comes to a head in the final section of the novel where the narrative directly addresses the now absent Imran and Zuhour declares her wish to become Imran’s mother, lover and daughter. Call me old-fashioned if you will, but that’s just weird.

Actually, the problem isn’t that it’s weird. I like weird, generally. The problem is that it doesn’t make sense. And here’s where the book is too short. Nothing actually seems to happen to give rise to Zuhour’s incestuous fervour. Imran basically never speaks. He does wear nice shirts, though.

Equally, it feels inconsistent that her love should take the form of a wild desire to simultaneously assume three traditional feminine roles when the most successful and poignant relationships in the book are those between Bint Aamir and the children she raises due to the failings or incapacities of their biological mothers. The story just isn’t fleshed out, and it’s not clear why.

But the book also feels too long in places because much of the writing is overwrought and repetitive, which diminishes the power of some otherwise evocative descriptions and takes up space that could surely be better used to avoid the flatness of the relationships described above. Nobody needs extended metaphors about how life is like a paper kite in a book which leaves the reader wondering why we should really care about the life of the central character.

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