First published in Arabic as Had a'iq ar-ra'ays in 2013. English language translation by Luke Leafgren published in the UK by MacLehose Press in April 2017.
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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated. How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death? The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell. It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle. It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter. And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President's Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.
I found The President's Gardens to be a traumatic book to read both in its emotional impact and, especially, in its graphic depictions of wartime violence and the aftermath of torture. This is definitely not a novel for the squeamish or faint-hearted. That said, I feel rewarded by the read and appreciated the opportunity to discover an Iraqi perspective on the years of warfare instead of American and British views. Al-Ramli has a beautiful prose style, meandering at times, with emphasis on character and motivation over action and pace. I was often swept up into deep philosophical discussions or portrayals of everyday village life or descriptions of the stunning eponymous gardens. These gentle scenes are then shattered on the turn of a page to reveal the true horrors of life under Saddam's regime or as a prisoner of war in Iran.
It was this duality of life that I found most difficult initially to grasp and I think this is why it took me a good quarter of the book to really get into the story. The first scene, of nine heads delivered in banana crates, is incredibly powerful. Al-Ramli then drops down several gears to begin a story of childhood friendship and I struggled to reconcile these and other threads, attempting to do so too soon instead of allowing the writing to lead me. The President's Gardens is harrowing and shocking, but also surprisingly humble and understated. I liked that we get to know the characters well and I could always understand their reasons for particular actions and choices. Ordinary people living through extreme times makes for fascinating literature, particularly so in this novel as so much of the background is essentially true and so recent.
Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Muhsin Al-Ramli / Contemporary fiction / Books from Iraq