No More Mulberries by Mary Smith captured my attention because I love to read stories set in cultures different from my own, but with the commonality of the human condition to draw me into the plot. The author managed to pull me into the story within the first page.
Set in rural Afghanistan, Miriam and Iqbal exist in a marriage of convenience for both, although the restrictions for Miriam are anything but convenient. She married Iqbal believing he was a certain way only to find out after moving back to his homeland that he wasn’t at all what she imagined. The book shows a marriage in turmoil, lacking in communication between the two partners. It wouldn’t matter where this story was set–the marriage resonates with brutal honesty about the nature of relationships when two people are motivated by prior histories and experiences. It’s also a universal truth that only heartbreak and dissatisfaction come from couples who keep things hidden and who hope somehow the other partner will know how they feel through osmosis.
Of course, the complications from living in a society where women are supposed to remain hidden, away from the men, and Miriam’s presence as a foreigner from Scotland, without the proper training to be the docile wife of the local doctor, adds to the conflicts the marriage endures. The landscape of Afghanistan described by Ms. Smith is complicated–harsh, yet beautiful in its own haunting way. The setting in Edinburgh provides a strong contrast as she describes it in more formal, colder terms. The opposing forces create an even more compelling picture of Miriam’s huge adjustment in leaving her homeland to settle in an environment diametrically opposed to where she spent her youth.
The point of view shifts between husband and wife, which is a good thing because it would be hard to have sympathy for the cold and stubborn Iqbal otherwise. His background is slowly revealed to give a more complete picture of the man and his motivations. Miriam’s story is doled out to the reader throughout the book. It’s an intriguing choice for the author to do it this way. As the reader, I yearned to find out why she made the choices she did. Why did she marry Iqbal? Why did she go with him to Afghanistan when she had a perfectly fine career in Edinburgh as a midwife?
Then there’s her first husband, Jawad. The story of their love affair, marriage, and subsequent tragedy sets a parallel course with the story of Miriam’s and Iqbal’s marriage. Miriam realizes that Iqbal isn’t to blame for all of the trouble in their marriage. She’s done her own form of mental damage without intention or consciousness. It’s through the telling of both their stories that the story swells to its conclusion.
As the story unfolded, I felt drawn into the life of all of the characters created by Ms. Smith. I understood their wounds and pleasures. But I also found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live under such primitive conditions. Her descriptions of health practices and beliefs seemed so archaic based on how and where I’ve lived that I had to keep going back and checking the dates given at the beginning of the chapters. The story is set mostly in 1995 with flashbacks ten years in the past. The political backdrop in 1995 gives a haunting quality to reading the story in a post-9/11 world. Hatred of Russia and the United States fuel the rise of the Taliban as shown in this novel. A tension existed in Afghanistan that the reader knows will only strengthen in the next six years after the story ends.
All in all, No More Mulberries is a superb read with many rich layers of tension-building plot, life-like characterization, believable dialogue, and riveting settings. Did I mention that this novel is the first one for Mary Smith? Amazing.