Prolific French Canadian author Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove is number 23 upon the Peirene Press list, published as part of 2017’s series, East and West. It has been translated from its original French by Sheila Fischman, and has sold over 25,000 copies in Tremblay’s native Canada. Longlisted for the 2017 IMPAC award, and the winner of eight others, The Orange Grove looks at ‘personal costs of war in the Middle-East’, and engages with ‘themes of the family and grief in general’. Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene, says of the novella: ‘This story made me cry… [It] reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’.
The Orange Grove focuses upon twin brothers, Ahmed and Aziz, who are living on their grandparents’ orange grove in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. When their grandparents are killed on their homestead in a bombing attack, the boys ‘become pawns in their country’s civil war’, leaving their parents with the devastating choice of which son they should save. Soulayed, an acquaintance of Ahmed and Amir’s father, takes the boys away from his family with their father’s permission, after saying just how important the small boys are to the war effort. He tells them: ‘”Do you see now what you’ve accomplished? You found a road to lead you to that strange town. You’re the only ones who’ve done it. Others who’ve tried to do so were blown to smithereens by the mines. In a few days, one of you qill go back there. You, Aziz, or you, Ahmed. Your father will decide. And the one who is chosen will wear a belt of explosives. He will go down to that strange town and make it disappear forever.”‘
The writing, particularly that which deals with violent scenes and aftermaths, is rather matter-of-fact; sometimes, it is even rendered coldly, and is almost entirely devoid of emotion. This can be seen when the twins discover the mutilated bodies of their grandparents: ‘Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed by a beam. Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared’.
Much of the prose, in fact, is simplistic, but sometimes deceptively so. There are flickers of beauty at times with regard to descriptions. Of the twins’ mother Tamara, for instance, Tremblay writes: ‘Some nights the moon made her think of a fingernail impression in the flesh of the sky. She liked these moments when she was alone before infinity’. The novella’s dialogue, on the other hand, is often rather profound.
I was reminded of another of Peirene’s publications, Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, whilst reading The Orange Grove. Whilst the novella undoubtedly tells an important story, there is the same simplicity to it at times, and the same kind of detachment. I never felt as though I truly learnt much about the characters who people Tremblay’s work, which comes across almost like a contemporary fable. The boys are both naive and knowing; an interesting contrast, which I cannot help but think more could have been made of. Regardless, The Orange Grove is a timely work, which raises questions about choice, family, religion, society, grief, loss, revenge, and deception. A lot is packed into the pages of this very human novella, and the whole could easily be extended into a much longer novel. Overall, I found The Orange Grove an important read, but ultimately a slightly underwhelming one.