No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

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No More Mulberries by Mary Smith

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Good plot and characterisation - but above all it brings to life the real Afghanistan. Recommended
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 260 Date: March 2009
ISBN: 978-1849234207

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Miriam was not been her name at birth – she was Margaret then – and she hadn't always lived in Afghanistan. The streets of Edinburgh were more familiar to her, but as we meet Miriam in the outlying village of Sang-i-Sia in July 1995 you could be forgiven for thinking that she had always lived there, as she coped with what western eyes would see as primitive conditions to feed and care for her family and act as midwife to the village women. Miriam abides by the Muslim way of life and seems content with her life, until you peel away a layer. Dr Iqbal was not her first husband and nor was he the love of her life. When Miriam was given the opportunity to attend a teaching camp as a translator she decides to go, despite knowing that it is against her husband's wishes.

This book might be about Miriam, but it's Afghanistan which will grab you and hold you. It’s a country of strange contrasts: the mulberries will have had their short season and then the apricots will ripen. After that it's the peaches, but the people live in conditions we would consider primitive. Latrines are a luxury, but the views are stunning and free. Faith is strong but knowledge about basic hygiene is limited with some ways of treating sick children actually contributing to their likely death. In some circumstances life is not precious. Mary Smith brings this country to life – and sometimes you feel the need to wash your hands.

Miriam must have been a difficult character to create. How do you make a woman who gladly lives in primitive conditions - and who stays when she might justifiably have gone back to Scotland – seem credible? The circumstances which make her marriage to Iqbal seem reasonable are subtly built together and it's pure inspiration that he should have suffered from leprosy in his youth. I was prepared to dislike Iqbal for his attitude to his wife, until I understood him a little more. It's all about face, you see.

The story is in layers and it's taken some considerable skill to deliver a story which moves back and forth in time and between Scotland and Afghanistan without the reader ever losing the thread. It was perhaps a little slow to start but there came a point when I simply couldn't put the book down and the conclusion was satisfying.

I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more from this country which the world seems so casually to make a venue for its wars you could try Afghan Silk by Julia Scott but be warned – it's not of the same quality as No More Mulberries. For more about the background to Islam you're sure to enjoy Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary.

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