The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
Translated by Sheila Fischman

I’ve written before about Peirene Press and their lovely books, having loved and reviewed “Sea of Ink” and “The Last Summer“. The latter was the first of this year’s releases, and the publishers tend to theme their books with the current series being titled “East and West”. The first book of the year looked at the divide between different classes and outlooks in pre-Revolutionary Russia; this second book looks at another setting, that of conflict in a war-torn zone, and the ideological divide here is just as fatal as the one in “The Last Summer”.

Ahmed and Aziz are twin boys, living in the Orange Grove in an unspecified country with their father Zahed and mother Tamara. The family is slap bang in the middle of a conflict and we are in no doubt of that from the first page, when bombing kills their extended family. The boys’ mother tries to maintain some kind of normal life, homeschooling them when the school is destroyed; however, their father is aware of his obligations to his kind and when local militants call, demanding that one of the boys carries out a suicide bombing attack, he cannot refuse.

The boys, although twins, are very different: Ahmed hears and sees things he cannot explain, whether spirits or visitations we’re not sure; Aziz is in some ways weaker, with an unspecified illness, and no fancies at all. A local militant, the dangerously persuasive and charismatic Soulayed, requires one of the boys to make his way over the hills wearing a belt primed with explosives to destroy the base on the side which has been bombing them and which destroyed their house and killed their grandparents. The point is, which twin? Zahed has to choose, but Tamara would make a different selection, and the boys themselves may have a view on this too…

The second part of the book is set in Canada; the surviving twin, known as Aziz, is now 20 and studying to be an actor. As he works on a play by his tutor Michael, the prospect of performing it brings to the surface his hidden past – for the play deals with terror and militants and is perhaps too close to home. In conversation with Michael, he tells the final truth about what happened near the Orange Grove and it’s shocking and shattering.

Not everything can be explained. Not even war. You can’t explain it when it kills children.

“The Orange Grove” is a quietly powerful book, yet devastating and absolutely necessary in this day and age. As with all the Peirene books it’s short and designed to read in one sitting but my goodness, does it punch above its weight! In 160 pages it covers the complexities of family life and loyalties, the rights and wrongs of war, the lies told in the name of ideology and the terrible cruelty of involving children in conflicts like this. All the family wants to do is to carry on living in the shade of the Orange Grove, a small area of sanity carved out of a war zone, but they cannot help but be involved in the fighting around them.

A strong element in the story is the clash between heritage and beliefs; the surviving twin initially believes all he is told by his father and Soulayed, accepting that his people are in the right, but the truth becomes clear as he grows up and moves into the wider world. Aziz starts to recognise the lies he has been told towards the end of his time in his native country, but once he is in Montreal the full horror is made clear. But what can you believe when you’re in the middle of conflict? It’s only at a distance, with perspective, that you can see things more clearly.

The majority of the characters in the book are male, but the two female presences there, the twins’ mother and her sister who has emigrated, see things very differently. It’s hard to imagine the emotions of a mother asked to sacrifice one of her children; and it’s bad enough to separate brothers in this way, but twins? It’s also terrifying how young the boys are, and in one scene they’re described as playing together, which is what they should be doing at that age, not becoming involved in death and destruction.

Obviously, this is a profoundly moving and affecting book, and I’m still thinking about it a long after finishing it. Sensibly, Tremblay does not define where the conflict actually is, what the ideology is or attempt to present the opposing views, which allows the book to be a comment on the horror and futility of war and its effects. The bottom line is that children are being killed and that is wrong, wrong, wrong – even more relevant bearing in mind recent events. “The Orange Grove” is a powerful addition to Peirene’s stable, an essential read that I can’t recommend strongly enough.

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A word about the author, Larry Tremblay, who was a name new to me. He’s a writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal who writes in French, and he’s written novels, short stories, poetry and plays. I wondered whether he drew on his own experiences for the second part of the book; and on the strength of this book I think his work definitely warrants further exploration.

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