Review: When the Apricots Bloom by Gina Wilkinson

Title: When the Apricots Bloom

Author: Gina Wilkinson

Published: 29th December 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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Inspired by Gina Wilkinson’s own experiences as a diplomat’s wife in Iraq, When the Apricots Bloom is a thought-provoking and moving story about loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and hope.

Set in Baghdad in 2002, the novel unfolds from the perspectives of three women – Ally, the wife of an Australian ambassador; Huda, Ally’s husband’s secretary; and Raina, Huda’s childhood friend.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq is defined by loss, suspicion, and fear, the mukhabarat lurk everywhere looking for any sign of disloyalty to their ‘great leader’, visiting swift and brutal punishment on anyone who dare to speak against him. Listening devices are used routinely in homes and public spaces, dissidents disappear, or are made examples of. Americans are banned from the country, and representatives of other western countries, particularly women, are barely tolerated.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you? Two can keep a secret only when one of them is dead.”

By failing to declare her dual citizenship, and her previous career as a journalist, Ally is in a precarious position that only worsens when she attempts to learn more about her late mother, who thirty years earlier spent time as a nurse in Baghdad. Naive regarding the risks to both herself, her husband, and anyone else she involves in her task, Ally will be forced to make a difficult choice.

When ordered by the mukhabarat (secret police) to befriend Ally and learn her secrets, Huda, whose husband is unemployed after the country’s economic collapse, has no other choice but to agree if she is to keep her teenage son safe from being conscripted into the fedayeen (death squad). As the police apply increasing pressure for information, Huda grows desperate, and demands help from Raina, once her closest childhood friend, whom she holds responsible for the execution of her brothers.

A sheik’s daughter, now an art dealer, whose family’s wealth and influence has dwindled to almost nothing, Raina is also worried for her daughter’s safety when one of Hussein’s son’s expresses interest in fourteen year old Hanan. She has little to offer Huda, but suggests the two women together can find a way to save their children.

“If the blood oath is broken,” she declared theatrically, “then the penalty is sorrow.” “Sorrow for the oath breaker,” she declared, “and for the generation that follows her.”

Demonstrating that women the world over will do what they must to protect their children, When the Apricots Bloom explores the circumstances in which Huda, Raina and Ally find themselves in, caught between the past and the future, forced to choose between duty and love.

The three main characters of When the Apricots Bloom are well-developed, though it was Huda who I found the most interesting, and whose fate I cared more for. Ally and Raina have protections, and choices, that Huda does not, and as such I considered her the braver of the trio. Huda is forced to walk such a thin line, I felt tense each time she was confronted by the mukhabarat, and my heart was in my throat during the final scenes.

Wilkinson’s insights into the daily life of Iraqi citizens under Hussein’s totalitarian rule are fascinating, portraying a country crippled by war, an economy destroyed by sanctions, and a populace oppressed by terror, all contrasting sharply to the glimpses of life in Baghdad before Hussein’s rise to power. Abandoning their country is nevertheless a wrench for the Huda and Raina, and Ally is disappointed to leave without answers to her questions.

“In a perfect world, we could wait until the apricots bloom. Alas, the world is not perfect.”

Expressive, evocative, and convincingly authentic, I found When the Apricots Bloom to be an absorbing read.

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