Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
At the height of Saddam Hussein’s sinister rule, three women form an unlikely alliance that is born of deception. Two of the women are Iraqi from different social classes whose childhood friendship was severed by an act of betrayal and resultant tragedy. Brought together a generation later by a fear of threats to their own children, the women seek a way out.
The third woman is newly arrived in Baghdad as the wife of an Australian embassy official. Being seen as an abettor of the US, Australia is of great interest to the regime and Ally soon comes under scrutiny. She proves to have little of value, but her clandestine American citizenship and her mother’s history in Baghdad a generation earlier spawns a vulnerability.
Huda is a local resident who works at the embassy and she and Ally appear to hit it off, until the mukhabarat, the regime’s secret police, intervene. Huda is forced into an official informant’s role. Concurrently, both she and her ex-childhood friend Rania find that the regime is eyeing their children with evil intent. The lives of all three start to become entangled, and Ally’s new ‘friends’ are so desperate that they would even consider betraying her to save their children.
The three women are the nucleus of the story, and each is given her turn at a narrative voice. Huda is the dominant character and her relationships create the central tension of the novel. Not just with Rania and Ally, but with her husband, son and the secret police. Everyday encounters with others – especially men – are often fraught. A simple trip for Ally and Huda to the sumptuous lobby of the Rashid hotel to meet an old colleague over coffee is laced with strain. As the women are caught between an agitated concierge and menacing secret police:
“In the periphery of her vision, Huda sensed men drawing closer. Her pulse began to gallop. She offered the concierge a placating smile” [p92].
She is a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman who is treated poorly by dint of her gender and social standing. In her unwanted post as informant, she is under duress to make life and death choices. We are witness to the rapid descent of one woman into a web of deception and lies that clings to everyone in her life. Huda has becomes so accustomed to lying that she even starts to doubt the word of the ingenuous Ally:
“The girl promised she’d meet her there. Huda shifted uneasily. Maybe she’d changed her mind. Perhaps Ally didn’t want to stand on the footpath, checking her watch and chitchat, while the past bore down on them like a runaway bus. As Huda scanned the roadside, she thought it fitting penance for a liar like her, that she could no longer keep faith in anyone else’s word” [p302].
Huda wants to leave the “lies and manipulation behind” but finds that they “clung to her pant leg” [p303] as she seeks a life away from the fear.
Gina Wilkinson has constructed a fictional account “inspired by my real-life experiences living in Iraq” [p307]. She acknowledges some commonality with Ally’s character and the relationship with Huda. As a journalist herself, it is hardly surprising that Gina had cause to wonder if her experience of friendship was real or contrived, when the ‘friend’ turns out to be a secret police informant.
A constant theme is the contrast between present and past. Although there was personal pain for Huda and Rania as children, each longs for a time gone but never forgotten:
“A sideboard held a collection of family photos, including a shot of Basil’s mother and a friend…..Dressed in knee length frocks, they smiled broadly and strode arm in arm past the colonnades of Rashid Street. Behind them, a man in a trilby hat and another in ankle-length dish-dasha waited at a bus stop. Neither paid any mind to the young women with their bare arms and hair falling past their shoulders, marching gaily towards the future” [p112].
The rivers of the story are both literal and metaphoric. They link the two women just as they link the two places – Baghdad on the Tigris banks and Basra on the Mesopotamian marshes – the great delta that terminates the ancient fertile crescent where the Tigris and Euphrates hosted some of the earliest civilisations on earth [and which were decimated by Saddam Hussein in an act of humanitarian and ecological brutality].
“The women swayed on their benches, while the Tigris pulsed below, moving relentlessly south, immune to the desperation of those struggling on its surface” [p246].
Yet the swirling waters of the rivers are channelled through an arid, unbending landscape whose ancient qualities are often masked by the detritus of an uncaring regime in which survival is a daily struggle:
“Ally eyed the prickly purple thistle, flowering chamomile, and scraps of rusty tin poking from the earth. Dust and dirt coated a mound of broken concrete. Bright yellow dandelions had sprouted in its patchwork of crevices” [p248]
As a westerner writing about certain intimacies and intricacies of Iraqi society, Gina recognises the marginalisation of “authors outside the white” and makes a case justifying her authorship based on personal experience and a journalist’s eye for detail. Whether or not the voice in this book is acceptable and accurate, it is a captivating depiction of a state that is at once exotic and hostile.
By Gina Wilkinson
$32.99 (paperback); 306pp