Friday, 21 March 2014

No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

reviewed by Catriona Troth

On the eve of Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1995, a Scottish midwife is running a clinic in a remote village in Hazara Zat with her Afghan husband.

But a web of past relationships, conflicting expectations, and the all-encompassing Afghan concept of honour is placing an unbearable strain on their marriage.

Mary Smith spent ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as an aid worker concerned with leprosy and mother and childcare, and her novel is filled with the sort of detail that can only come from deep personal experience. Whether spreading out mulberries to dry in the sun on a roof weatherproofed with layers of mud, the bone-jarring impact of driving over rutted mountain roads, or the grim realities of working in a clinic with children hovering on the edge of life – Smith draws us into the lives of her characters.

She shows us the aid workers who drop into the country for a year or two, imagining they can solve all its problems without troubling to understand its culture. The young, educated Afghan men, torn between the desire to promote new ideas and the imperative to ‘maintain face’ among their more traditional families and neighbours. And above all, the strength, resilience and humour of the Afghan women.

This could have been simply a fictionalised memoir. But by weaving between the past and the present of her two main characters, Smith has added layers of emotional complexity to her narrative. Her examination of the difficulties involved in a marriage that crosses cultures is honest and avoids cheap stereotypes and lazy assumptions.

It’s impossible to read this and not be aware that, tough as the life described here is, the shadow of the Taliban, war and occupation lies ahead. If you want to understand a little of the country that has suffered so much, I recommend you read No More Mulberries.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Half of a Yellow Sun, An African Farm

Avoid if: you’re squeamish about the realities of life away from modern, Western ’civilisation;’ if you dislike having your cultural assumptions challenged

Ideal accompaniments: A bowl of mulberries (of course).

Genre: Literary Fiction, narratives from beyond the English-speaking world

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