The Wild Date Palm by Diane Armstrong

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Some true stories deserve a novel. This is one of them. Even the title of Diane Armstrong’s latest novel is a clever and poignant take on a date palm that did not exist when the story took place, and an historian might overlook, but a novelist could see the romantic symbolism.

Palestine in 1910 was a place where Jews and Arabs co-existed under the watch of the  once mighty Ottoman empire. The last desperate kick of that empire was a particularly nasty one – the forced expulsion and mass murder of Armenians, a large Christian minority within Anatolia.   In fear of reprisals against other minorities, one small group of Jews in a Palestinian village saw the outbreak of the Great war as both threat and opportunity.

The opportunity was to help the Ottoman’s enemies – notably Britain – to defeat them and to perhaps  secure a permanent homeland in the middle east. The central figures are Jews from a village south east of Haifa (now in Israel), who decide to spy on the Turks and send vital military intelligence to the British.

At the same time, another minority in the empire, formed the Arab revolt under the leadership of Faisal ibn Hussein (later King of Iraq) and guided by the British officer, T.E. Lawrence. The Jews and the Arabs had a similar intent to overthrow the Ottomans, but both had their eyes on the same homeland, sowing the seeds for future conflict.

The facts and circumstances of the Jewish spy ring (Nili) are well documented and the main protagonists are important historical figures, particularly in Israel. The plot of the novel appears to adhere to the historical accounts, with the most notable departure being new names for the Jewish characters.

Shoshana” and her brother “Nathan” (Sarah and Aaron Aaronsohn) dominate the book, but for most of the time are in different countries. The novel form permits the exploration of topics only hinted at in the historic accounts – the dread of discovery by the Turks, frustrations with British incompetence,  conflicts amongst the villagers, Shoshana’s relationship with her sister “Leah” and lover “Eli” and the rivalry with Lawrence.

World War 1 in the Middle East offers a rich and unfamiliar tableau of exciting action and larger than life characters. One of them is Lawrence of Arabia. While researching this novel, I was fascinated to learn that he had actually visited Atlit and sketched the ruined crusader castle that dominates the coastline. But did he ever meet Sarah? We know that he met Sarah’s brother in Cairo and that during her visit to Cairo, British officers praised her beauty and courage, but the trail ends there, offering a writer of historical fiction the opportunity to explore the potential.  [p362, Author’s note].

The Wild Date Palm is a skilfully constructed story of a seminal time in Middle Eastern history. The re-creation of the human element – and particularly the bravery and single-minded determination of Shoshana – brings the narrative to life. Diane Armstrong may not have added to the historical record,  but she has transported readers into a fascinating and dangerous world and celebrated the lives of some true heroes.

Diane Armstrong is a child Holocaust survivor who arrived in Australia from Poland in 1948. An award-winning journalist and bestselling author….

Her first novel, Winter Journey, was published in 2004 and shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It has been published in the US, UK, Poland and Israel. Her second novel, Nocturne, was published in 2008 and won the Society of Women Writers Fiction Award. It was nominated for a major literary award in Poland. Empire Day, a novel set in post-war Sydney, was published in 2011, and The Collaborator, set in Hungary and Israel, was published in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom in 2019. Dancing With the Enemy, set in Second World War Jersey was published in 2022.

 The Wild Date Palm

(April 2024)

by Diane Armstrong


ISBN: 978 186724 516 2

$32.99 (RRP Paperback); 384pp

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