The name alone of the country Afghanistan conjures up images of war, strife, death, despair and deprivation. Intellectually we know there is a life beyond the headlines, an everyday existence which is rarely written about. A few books in recent years have emerged to fill the gap of our lack of knowledge and one of the best of these is Mary Smith’s excellent ‘No More Mulberries’.
Although a fiction novel, it is evident that the author draws on her personal experience as a health worker for ten years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
‘No More Mulberries’ follows the life of Scottish-born midwife Miriam, who has wholeheartedly embraced Afghanistan and relishes her work with the local people in the rural community of her second husband. Here she makes friends, finds fulfilment with her work however cracks quickly appear in her life.
Her husband Iqbal is struggling to cope with the return to his home village and to balance the rigid expectations of his family, friends and colleagues with his previously more independent life in Pakistan, where he could equally celebrate and be proud of Miriam’s success. As Iqbal escapes into a world of work and silence, Miriam, against her husband’s wishes, joins another health clinic as a translator for Afghan paramedics and foreign doctors. Here the past and present collide as a friend of her first husband, her first and true love, rides into the clinic to bring her for a visit to the village she first lived in when newly married and in Afghanistan years earlier.
The book follows the intense journey of Miriam and partly Iqbal’s journey in the present-day as well as brilliantly bringing their past vivdly alive for us in flashbacks. Through these the characters deep introspection develops into an inner soul-searching journey. For both past traumas has marred their present lives and that of their children. Is it too late for them, they both wonder as their relationship seems to flounder? How can they live in a village that threatens to engulf them by history and tradition?
The book is set in the stunning natural landscape of the countryside as well as to the increasingly unstable political backdrop where tribal tensions are growing in severity. The, at times, precarious situation surrounding Miriam and her family ensures this is a tense, compulsive read which never flags. I was riveted by both the epic sweeping story as well as the wonderful descriptive writing and the beautifully drawn and varied characters in ‘No More Mulberries’.
Mary Smith is an assured writer who unravels the multifaceted lives of her characters with creative skill, whilst retaining a tight control of the overall novel. I was hooked from the very beginning and felt a sense of loss upon finishing the book … one of those times I just didn’t want to say farewell to my new friends! This is one of my favourite books this year and I look forward to reading more by this author.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars