Review: Trees for the Absentees

3.5 stars

THE PLOT: Trees for the Absentees by Ahlam Bsharat is a short novel about a young girl living in occupied Palestine. The protagonist, Philistia, has grown up helping her Grandma Zahia who is a midwife and corpse washer. After her Grandma dies and her father is taken into indefinite detention, Philistia gets a part-time job washing women’s bodies at the ancient Ottoman hammam in Nablus. But as she washes the bodies and grieves for her Grandma, Philistia’s mind goes on a magical journey across centuries of occupation.

RATING: This short book (perhaps a novella?) packs a punch with strong themes of loss, memory, grief and captivity. With a healthy dose of magical realism, it is a multi-layered narrative which leaves you questioning what’s real. Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland, this was my pick for women in translation month and I’m glad I got to read a new author to myself from a culture I’d love to learn more about. I’ve debated giving it four stars, but I’m giving it three and a half, because I’ve got strict with my ratings!

GOOD BITS: As someone who lives in a dreamworld, I really liked the voice of the protagonist. She felt relatable and sympathetic, yet she wasn’t too passive. However, I felt the book really got going with Bayrakdar around 40 pages in. At this point I felt the relationships developed and I got to feel the main character more. Also, the description of the Israeli’s burning the Palestinian olive groves stood out as being particularly beautiful and moving.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: The magical realism meant I found it hard to keep track of what was happening, particularly in some of the dialogue. At points there were two conversations going on at once, for example when a character is on the phone and also speaking to someone in the same room. Although realistic to human speech, I think more description of the characters’ actions (facial expressions, hand gestures etc.) would’ve helped me to follow the dialogue. I also felt this was a small snapshot of a character’s life, rather than a plot progressing towards a character goal.

OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories or Snowflake by Louise Nealon (similar protagonist and use of dreams). You’ll have to be a fan of magical realism and comfortable with a drifting sense of reality to read this. However, if you let yourself relax into the book, you can enjoy an intimate character portrait and beautiful writing.