Title: When the Apricots Bloom
Author: Gina Wilkinson
Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2020
Gina Wilkinson is a journalist, foreign correspondent and documentary-maker. In this debut novel we follow three young women living in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The story is based on the writer’s personal experience of life in Baghdad under Saddam.
Two teenagers pledge love and loyalty with a blood oath. Huda is a village girl. Rania is a sheikh’s granddaughter, Iraqi nobility. After sharing a delightful adolescence on the banks of the Tigris, Huda and Rania lose contact.
When Saddam seizes power in Iraq, war, sanctions and tyranny bring the golden years of the Fertile Crescent to a bloody end. Tensions with Washington increase and a nervous Iraq increases security. Embassies withdraw non-essential staff. Iraqis live in fear of Saddam’s secret police. They can invade your home, threaten your children or even snatch you off the streets.
Twenty-four years after their oath, Huda and Rania are struggling to raise their own teenagers in dangerous circumstances. Rania has contacts in the resistance. When Huda’s brothers are killed in a brutally crushed uprising, Rania disappears, hiding a shameful secret. Huda holds Rania responsible for the boys’ deaths.
When Huda lands a secretarial job at the Australian Embassy it seems too good to be true. Then the secret police order her to spy on Ally Wilson, the young wife of the Australian Deputy Ambassador to Iraq. The brutal intrusion of uniformed men into her home shatters Huda’s world. Her teenaged son, they warn, can be ordered into the regime’s murderous militia which trains boys to be killers.
Ally must hide her American citizenship, a deception that is dangerous. Western women are not safe on the streets. Ally, naïve and reckless, goes out alone. Huda tries to protect her even while she is forced to spy on her.
The secret police order Rania’s teenaged daughter to the presidential palace where sadistic sexual practices are known to take place. Rania and Huda are now reunited in an uneasy alliance to save their endangered children. They plan to smuggle them out of the country by forcing Ally to use her diplomatic position to help them.
In a world that nurtures suspicion rather than trust the women push the boundaries of safety. Friendships form despite the dangers and torture them in an emotional tug-of-war as the regime forces them to keep secrets from each other. The closer they become, the more they fear each other. Emotions are on-edge as they fight off the urge to trust. Blood oaths are stronger than anything … aren’t they?
Wilkinson weaves a gripping, page-turning plot of intrigue, fear and courage. When the Apricots Bloom takes us into a world that is foreign, exotic and terrifying as its strong characters struggle under the rise of tyranny. It challenges our comfortable existence and our privilege and reminds us that nations we have demonised and gone to war with are populated with people just like us. Knowing that I had more in common with the naïve Ally Wilson than with the brave Iraqi women, I read When the Apricots Bloom with sadness, huge respect and admiration for the courage of those who survive and resist. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It will not disappoint.
Reviewed by: Maureen Riches, January 2021
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group