Friday, 1 February 2013

Book Review: The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1859643299/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1859643299&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21
In January I was so lucky to win a book that otherwise would never have found its way into my hands, i.e. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti. The title sounds lovely and makes believe the same about the story told in it, but this assumption proves completely wrong already in the very first chapter. In fact, the story has more in common with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables than with any of the romances on best selling lists. The novel deals with suppression and cruelty, with fear and hatred, with prejudice and ignorance. And it gives hope showing that there are ways out of the vicious circle after all.

Michelle Cohen Corasanti was born into a Jewish American family. She has been living in Israel for several years where she earned a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She continued her studies at Harvard University in the USA, then lived in France, Spain and England as well as in Egypt, and is now based in New York with her family. The Almond Tree came out in October 2012. It is Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s debut novel.

The Almond Tree is divided into four parts, each one covering a decisive period in the life of the novel’s protagonist Ichmad Hamid. The first part is dedicated to the childhood and youth of Ichmad, a Palestinian boy born in 1947, the year when Israel was founded, and with a great gift for mathematics and sciences. The novel starts in 1955 with the little sister of the seven-year-old being torn apart by an Israeli landmine before his eyes. As the story goes on, the family is chased from its spacious home and orange groves and forced to live in a one-room house with an almond tree in the back yard, Ichmad’s pacifistic father is arrested as an alleged terrorist and imprisoned for fourteen years and the family’s house is destroyed. Twelve-year-old Ichmad and his younger brother Abbas have to leave school to earn a living for themselves, their mother and their four small siblings. Thanks to the teacher Mohammad who is aware of Ichmad’s gift the boy can continue his studies. During the day he works, at night the teacher tutors him until he wins a scholarship to the Hebrew University. As from 1966, the year that starts off the second part of the novel, Ichmad Hamid is a student and research assistant at university where he makes friends with many Israelis, including professor Sharon who he works for. The third part of the novel is set in the USA where Ichmad Hamid and Menachem Sharon settle in 1974 and work together, first at the MIT, later at the New York University. The final part moves on to the year 2009. Ichmad Hamid returns to Israel with his wife to find his lost brother Abbas in occupied Gaza.

The story of the gifted little boy from Palestine who becomes a renowned scientist working together with his Jewish professor and friend is full of historical detail as well as of knowledge about the constant humiliation and despair of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. The language of Michelle Cohen Corasanti is simple and clear. The characters described could well be real persons although I think that their points of view are sometimes too static. None of them ever seems to have many doubts. The chastening of Abbas in the end comes so quickly that I find it hard to believe.

The Almond Tree isn’t a light bedtime read likely to favour sweet dreams. The story isn’t amusing, nor very imaginative since it’s too realistic. The persons described and the events in their lives are invented, but sadly many Palestinians had and have lives very much like theirs. The author wishes to show that reconciliation is possible if both sides let go the hatred, try to understand what is behind it and work together for peace and prosperity. She makes Ichmad repeat his father’s words: “Only forgiveness will set you free.” (p. 191) However, I’m afraid that Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s message won’t reach the people who really need to open their minds and hearts in Israel, in Palestine, everywhere. 

All things considered The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti is a very good book. I liked the novel and I’m happy to have been given a chance to read it.

4 comments:

  1. I really like the sound of this one. Great review.

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  2. Great review...I look forward to reading it...

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the praise, Kathleen! Yes, The Almond Tree was a really pleasant surprise, shattering in its details sometimes. But then the story of today's Palestine isn't a nice one. I hope that you'll like the book even more than my review. It deserves it!

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