Diane Armstrong – The Wild Date Palm

HQ Fiction, an imprint of HQBooks, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Australia P/L, Australia 2019
Cover design Darren Holt, HarperCollins Design Studio
Cover images: Magdalena Russocka/Trevillion Images; istockphoto; shutterstock

This book is based on WW1 era young Jewish activists, the Aaronsohns, who formed a secret spy ring to defeat their oppressive Turkish rulers and assist British forces in the Middle East.

Barbie talks to Diane Armstrong about The Wild Date Palm

The fictionally presented main characters are brother and sister Shoshana and Nathan Adelstein, their sister Leah and poet/activist Ely. Leah’s perspective bookends the story, which is both history and romance, personal and global.

Set from 1910 to 1917 with a more contemporary view in 1967 to round out the tale and shed light on some of the mysteries, the novel is a powerful telling of the machinations of world powers in this much disputed region. It’s timely, speaking of the many migrations and expulsions of people of different faiths that have led to today’s political picture.

Much of the narrative directs us to the internal life of Shoshana. Her sense of duty leads her to step aside for her younger sister in the love triangle created by Ely’s rather fickle and controlling assertion that he loves them both. But, it is the spy ring and superpowers’ political story that dominate and fix so well for us the present context.

It is the witnessing of the Armenian genocide first-hand that inspires Shoshana to bravely launch upon her spying career – she is shocked by the herding of emaciated Armenian women and children by the cruel Turks and is convinced that the Jews will be next if she doesn’t do all she can to help the British to victory.

Her belief that passing on information about all aspects of the Turkish regime will help strengthen the British military position drives her to lead a group of young friends in theair dangerous undertaking. It is no easy matter to convince the arrogant British of their value, however. It is only through Nathan and his useful skills as a scientist that they succeed in grudgingly winning over the British government and military officials.

Inevitably, the community who already harbour jealousy and envy at the success of the Aaronsohns, proves oppositional, believing that their existence is more threatened by the secret activity than by their Turkish overlords. This is but one nod to universal human nature, cleverly woven into this story by an astute author.

Her observations on the lot of women are also perceptive, providing ample motivation for Shoshana to abandon her marriage to the wealthy man of her parents’ choice who contrives to keep her confined to the home and under the watchful eye of her mother in law.

Shoshana’s intelligence and need for purpose were never going to survive such restrictions. She proves that she can hold her own in the company of men at a time when women were expected to stay in their place.

Her meetings with Lawrence (of Arabia) are another interesting sidebar to the story, one that is also a comment on the politics and white colonial attitudes of the day as well as a reference to this famously magnetic personality.

Nathan and Lawrence also cross paths and metaphorical swords. Their motivations are so different it is no wonder that they do not like each other. Nathan, who is eventually called upon to advise the British government, suggests a peaceful solution to the division of land according to access to water.

That political expediency and greed actually hold sway is no surprise, especially as we know that the British sold ‘the same horse twice’, offering both the Arabs and Jews conflicting assurances in order to garner their support.

We read this novel at a time when the war in Gaza is daily on our screens and it is with that in mind that I say how fascinating Diane Armstrong’s story is. While we can on one level enjoy the story of love and passion, the tale of courage and altruistic action, the insights into family and community and the account of the history of the time, we inevitably rue the self interest and immorality of those in power in all places – then and now. No, we do not learn from history and nor do we heed the wisdom of science or philosophy.

Diane Armstrong is an author who helps us to see ourselves. Her narrative technique is flawless, sweeping us along with the sheer epic scale of the story. Her characters, inspired by the real, are equally real in their page bound existence.

The unsolvable remains, of course, as does the bitter irony of our humanity. That the author lays bare moral questions without clear answers renders her work classic in significance.

Thank you to HarperCollins for my review copy and to Diane for such an interesting conversation about this fascinating and timely book.