Review of The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti1 Star
I looked forward to reading this book because of the subject matter; unfortunately, the novel was disappointing.
The book is the fictional memoir of a Palestinian named Ichmad Hamid. Covering the years from 1955 to 2009, the focus is on the extreme suffering of Ichmad’s large family at the hands of the Israeli occupiers. Crisis follows crisis, although Ichmad is able to better his life because of his intelligence.
A major problem is the weak characterization. Ichmad’s portrayal is unrealistic as evidenced in the repeated references to his exceptional abilities. From the beginning Ichmad sees himself as different: “I knew from a young age that I wasn’t like the other boys in my village” (14). He is “promoted by three grades” (19) and, because he becomes a backgammon champion, he becomes “a welcome and honoured guest . . . sort of a legend” (19) at the village tea house. His father speaks of his eldest son’s “extraordinary mathematical mind” (30) and his mother calls him “’my masterpiece’” (31). The village teacher speaks of him as a genius (112) who will make his people proud (69). Despite his limited education because he has to go to work to help support his family, he aces a mathematics competition, graduates at the top of his class (198), and in his research makes “tremendous progress” (263). And he is nominated for a Nobel Prize “each of the last ten years” (338)!
To make matters worse, Ichmad is exceptional in other ways. Twice he is a hero: “[W]ithout fear,” he rescues a girl from a rabid jackal (80), and later he saves two students from a fire (197-198). Twice it is mentioned that he works “around the clock” (196, 289). His generosity knows no bounds: he buys his nephews convertible Mercedes (324) and pays for the university education of seventeen nieces and nephews. In his sixties, his body is “firm and strong from years of running” (317), though not once is reference made to his running to stay in shape.
Character transformations are also incredible. A man “well known for his . . . dislike of Arabs” (137) who may have beaten and arrested Ichmad’s father (159) becomes Ichmad’s “closest friend” (344)? He is not the only one to undergo such a miraculous change. When Ichmad first meets Yasmine, he says that everything about her “screamed ignorance. Her veil, her thick, unplucked eyebrows, her traditional robe. . . . Her teeth were yellow and were crooked and she was plump” (271). She has “a ready array of excuses” (276) to not adapt to her new life in the United States, but later she is described as wearing “tight black trousers” (305) and having earned a “master’s degree in elementary education” (310).
And then there are the gaps and inconsistencies. Abbas “can barely walk” (253) yet twice he travels a considerable distance to find his brother Ichmad (154, 187), and both times he knows exactly where to find him at different locations on the university campus. The village teacher tells Ichmad, “’If you win, I’ll find jobs for your brothers in my cousin’s moving company’” (110), yet he doesn’t keep his promise when his prize pupil wins the mathematics competition? A woman is described as wearing a “lacy undergarment that conformed perfectly to the round fullness of her breasts” (235), but she never wore bras (278)? A family agrees not to tell a man about the death of his daughter “until he was released” (57). When he is released fourteen years later, his first words to his family are about the death of the daughter (207). When was he told? A professor accuses Ichmad of cheating. A classmate, without ever being told about the accusation, comments that the professor has become lazy (163). That classmate “’figured out what happened’” (174), but the reader is never told how Ichmad is cleared.
The writing style is repetitious. When surprised, characters stare “with their mouths open” (118). On the same page, another person is described: “His mouth was open” (118). A classmate’s “mouth gaped open” (147) in awe at Ichmad’s skills at backgammon. His brother stares at him “open-mouthed” (189). And the protagonist stares with “mouth agape” (186). When Ichmad first sees a woman, she is described as “the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen” (79) or “the loveliest girl I’d ever seen” (218). Dialogue is unnatural. Why would Ichmad have to tell his brother, who was there, “’Don’t forget, everything we owned was destroyed’” (77) or that the Jews “’control over ninety per cent of the land’” (81)? Then there are the lengthy advanced math problems (117 – 118, 139, 201) which serve virtually no purpose in a work of fiction.
Symbolism is simplistic. The almond tree and olive trees at the back of Ichmad’s family home are the major symbols. Ichmad says, “They reminded me of my people. . . . I’d marveled that despite their exposure to beatings, arid landscape and fierce heat, the trees survived and bore new fruit year after year, century after century. I knew their strength lay in their roots which were so deep that even if the trees were cut down, they survived and sent forth shoots to create new generations. I always believed that my people’s strength, like the olive trees’, lay in our roots” (207 – 208). The symbol should speak for itself; it should not need to be explained.
There is no doubt that the author is passionate about the Palestine-Israel conflict. Certainly, the Palestinian perspective needs to be given, and to have a Jewish American attempt to do so is daring. It is unfortunate that the skills required to write a good novel are missing.