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  • Writer's pictureGina Wilkinson

Who Tells the Stories of War? A new review of When the Apricots Bloom

Novelist Jessie Tu, author of the 2020 hit A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, dives deep into the way women are portrayed in stories of conflict in her review of When the Apricots Bloom, published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

'War stories are usually told by men about men. They are the front-line combatants – they fight with guns, spears, grenades, fists. Rarely do we hear stories of those who are most oppressed. And stories from recent wars told by women about women are even rarer.

It’s Baghdad, 2002. America is about to invade Iraq. The mukhabarat, Iraqi’s Intelligence Service – aka “the secret police” – are monitoring citizens’ every move. Everyone is considered a potential spy. Hidden surveillance is everywhere.

In former foreign correspondent Gina Wilkinson’s first novel, When the Apricots Bloom, one of the heroines ponders “was it possible the television contained a tiny camera, feeding like a parasite off the TV’s electrical supply? Did agents of the mukhabarat watch her and her husband in bed?” This level of paranoia can escalate to something unbearable, something to induce derangement. Here is a world made by men for men, where fathers put their family honour higher than their daughter’s wishes, where husbands die or go missing, where women learn to silence themselves. “Prudence stilled her tongue.”

This is a world where lives are policed in ways most of us only encounter in dystopian novels. But When the Apricots Bloom turns this dark setting into one of hope, optimism and rich futurity as it follows the story of Huda, Rania and Ally — three women pursuing their journeys towards freedom. Huda, a translator for Australia’s deputy ambassador to Iraq, is forced by the mukhabarat to befriend the ambassador’s young wife to spy on her. The mukhabarat uses Huda’s teenage son as leverage, threatening to force him into the fedayeen — Saddam’s “Men of Sacrifice” paramilitary group who “fill his head with talk of martyrs and how he can avenge his family’s suffering”.

Huda ropes a childhood friend, Rania, into helping her son get a passport so he can get out of Iraq. The price would take at least a year to pay (“She felt like a starving woman hovering over a warm load of bread.“)

As children, Huda and Rania were blood sisters who “sliced their thumbs, mingled their blood and swore not to keep secrets”. But the stakes of adulthood are higher. The stakes of womanhood — unprecedented.

Rania is an artist running her own gallery who is forced to accept a commission to paint a portrait of Saddam Hussein while protecting her daughter from insidious and powerful men. The only way out is a passport to another country. This is challenging in a country where women are not permitted to travel without male permission.

The pair appeal to Ally, wife of the ambassador. Ally tells “wacky jokes” and laughs too loud. She is on her own mission, piecing together the account of her own mother’s time in Baghdad two decades earlier. But the mission proves almost impossible. History is best left in the past (“Mourning the past was a luxury she couldn’t afford.“)

To forget a woman’s life “became an unofficial family motto, that refusal to dwell on the past … her mother’s memory grew distant and hazy”. In Iraq, there are stories that remain “unspeakable, unprintable, unthinkable”.

Wilkinson’s evocative language shapes the novel into one of suspense, intrigue and conspiracy; where female friendship is platformed, showing an intimacy that is especially feminine within a context usually unseen. All three women are “bulimic on a sorrowful binge”, but their connection buoys strength as their bodies “absorb the repeated motions of friendship”.

“In Iraq, every friendship is a risk,” Wilkinson writes. This book insists on prioritising the centrality of female friendship and I found myself basking in the comfort of reading a story that demands the singularity of womens’ lives.

Although it is set within a backdrop of male power, where human grief is “almost a creature into itself”, the power of a woman’s intent for the safety of those she loves carries the novel through with a mesmerising pulsating force.'

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