Under the Almond Tree review: A teenage refugee’s tale

An Afghan family fleeing the Taliban in the 1990s take refuge on an endless train journey

Mon, Mar 6, 2017, 11:40


Book Title:
Under the Almond Tree


Laura McVeigh

Two Roads

Guideline Price:

One of Ireland’s best loved children’s books comes to mind when reading this week’s choice for new fiction. Marita Conlon McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree (1990), the first in a trilogy of famine novels, sees three siblings trek across a blight-ridden Ireland in the hope of finding family. With a title that pays homage to Conlon McKenna, Under the Almond Tree also tells of a dangerous journey undertaken by a young adult narrator seeking shelter in desperate times.

In Laura McVeigh’s debut, 15-year-old Samar and her family are refugees, fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan in the 1990s, after attacks from the Russians and then the Taliban make life in Kabul untenable. The author looks at the catastrophic effects of war and displacement on a liberal, middle-class family whose home town becomes “a tinderbox and us oblivious”.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, McVeigh studied modern and medieval languages at Cambridge before becoming director of Pen International, a role that saw her travel widely and work with people seeking refuge and campaigning for freedom of expression.


There are lessons in everything from the Decembrist uprising in imperial Russia, to Ahmad Massoud’s Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the move from the tolerant Kabul of the 1970s to the hardline morality of the Taliban, and, most poignantly, the displacement or death of hundreds of thousands of people caught in the crossfire of multiple, seemingly endless wars. In the hands of a young, omniscient narrator, the sorrowful story is humanised and never preachy.

When we first meet Samar she is on the Trans-Siberian Railway with her parents and numerous siblings, apparently going back and forth in a perpetual journey between Asia and Europe until the family either runs out of money or decides on a plan for safety. It is a neat conceit that highlights the limited choices available to refugees, even those with money. It also affords Samar plenty of time to write her story, encouraged by the train’s provodnik Napoleon, whose own past as the son of an NKVD guard forms an interesting subplot.


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So much happens that the story can be fleeting at times, with the impetus definitely on action rather than reflection. McVeigh is vivid on the violence of camp life, for example, but there is little interior realism on all the loss experienced. An attempt at intertextuality with Anna Karenina adds little despite the references to train stations towards the end.


As Samar depicts the ruined lives of so many characters, the importance of storytelling is at the core of the novel. The power of the imagination to sustain unbearable tragedy is weaved throughout. Just as the hawthorn tree symbolised the otherworld that loomed over Conlon McKenna’s young siblings, the almond tree of McVeigh’s book is also a symbol, one of hope that stories can ultimately act as saviours.