I read two books for my TBR challenge in July that, although completely different, seem to both be about identity. Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj is set in England and Palestine and Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, set in the US.
Ishmael’s Oranges is the reason I signed up for the TBR challenge. I bought it because I loved the title and the cover, but for some reason it’s just sat on a pile unread for years. I’m glad to say it was worth the wait.
The book opens in 1948 when Salim Al-Ishmaeli is 7 years old and growing up in Jaffa, Palestine. Judit Gold is born in 1948 in Sunderland, England into a Jewish family. The story is split into time frames and follows their lives and Arab and Jewish heritage until 1988.
This is an everyday story of the Arab/Israeli conflict and the way division affects ordinary people and their families. Emotions are stark and real and although sometimes I found myself being driven quietly mad by the decisions Salim makes, at his core is the question of where does he belong and where do his loyalties lie. Judit’s story seems to get lost along the way, which was a shame because she was an easy and likeable character.
I enjoyed the humour Clair Hajaj got from her two locations. The Geordie accent, and ‘heavy dampness’ of England butting into the exotic blue and gold sunshine of Jaffa, were little bits of gentle realism in an otherwise war torn story. And the food was utterly delicious. Used to show family and love, the steaming spiced cabbage and roast lamb, had me sending out invitations and eating far more than my share of humus and flat breads.
I have a funny relationship with Anne Tyler. I only came to know about her a couple of years ago and read The Amateur Marriage with absolute relish but since then nothing has quite captured me although I still pick up anything by her in hope. So when Ladder of Years came into the charity shop I work in I bought it eagerly and loved it (at first).
When Cordelia Grinstead, dressed in her bathing costume and beachrobe walks away from her family and just keeps walking, it makes perfect sense! She’s reached the time when her children seem to have no need of her and her husband is wrapped up in everything else. I couldn’t have agreed with her more – keep walking I told her. The minutiae of life, the new characters she meets, the new clothes she buys for her new self, made it so believable, as if this really is the sort ofthing we could all do – change our lives on a whim. But then it just seemed to peter out, she ended up not being the person I was expecting and I was disappointed in her and in her choices. I suppose I preferred her struggling to find her identity to the one she chose!
I’ve still got lots of Anne Tyler’s to go and this hasn’t put me off by any means. I love the humour she derives from us and our silly ways.