Hachette, Australia, 2020
Set in Baghdad, Iraq, in the time of Saddam Hussein, this novel explores questions of trust, of truth and honour, of the love of family and of grief.
The three female characters who carry this story bring together three worlds.
Ally is an Australian woman accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting, a journalist who must become a housewife for the purposes of her visa.
Rania is a highly born artist who has been involved in secret rebellion in the past and whose current existence is one of impoverishment and scraping together a living whilst juggling the demands of the current brutal regime, while Huda who works as a secretary at the Australian embassy, is required by the secret police, the mukhabarat, to spy on Ally.
All three have their secrets – Ally is in search of her mother’s past from the time when she worked in Baghdad as a nurse. Rania is holding onto secrets from the past and then is forced to keep more in an effort to save her daughter from the clutches of the Hussein inner circle.
Huda also holds secrets from the past and the links of her long friendship with Rania, but now struggles with her role as spy and traitor to Ally, whilst fiercely struggling to save her son from being forced into the Hussein regime’s vicious paramilitary organization, the fadayeen.
The story of the three women is painted on a rich backdrop of the country and the era. Gina Wilkinson’s on the ground experience in Baghdad shines brilliantly through in this work with her heady descriptions of the market, the booksellers, the sound of the wind in the gardens, the sense of awful foreboding conjured from the first pages to the last.
The theme of trust and distrust is explored in the many layers of the story – personal trust, trust in one’s own values, trust in the powers of government and law, trust in the courage of one’s conviction. The bonds of family and friendship are also dominant strands.
Overwhelmingly though, it is the notion of grief both personal and national that we feel in reading this finely-crafted novel. Each main character carries deep grief from the past into the present.
At the same time we also experience the grief of loss by supporting characters like Huda’s husband, now out of work and dependent upon his wife, due to the change of regime and the international sanctions. The nation itself heaves with grief under the viciousness’ of Saddam Hussein’s reign – people disappear, are jailed and tortured, the freedom to speak is taken, the simple joy of a visit to the tea shop is fraught with danger.
For the foreigner there is a need for constant vigilance. No word or action goes unnoticed. Nothing is private. Anyone associating with the foreigner also comes under scrutiny and suspicion from the regime and its brutal enforcers.
All this the author allows us to feel, along with a melancholic nostalgia for a past in Baghdad which we of course have never known. So powerful is her writing that we can almost believe these memories are our own, and so is the grief. It is only the courage of the women of this story that saves us from despair I think, that and the hopeful denouement. It is good to be left hopeful in fiction as in life.
I highly recommend this book to those who seek greater understanding of world affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries, but also to anyone seeking a thoroughly absorbing tale populated by relatable characters, flawed like all of us, magnificent as we would wish to be if called.
Thank you to Hachette for the review copy and for facilitating my interview with Gina, which was fascinating.