by Larry Tremblay
translated by Sheila Fischman
I had no idea what to expect from The Orange Grove before I picked it up; I had read neither reviews nor the back flap synopsis. The only thing I knew—in fact, the main reason I started reading—was that the book takes place far from Quebec. Don’t get me wrong: I love fiction about La Belle Province. But having recently read my fill of underdog narrators roving through various unnamed Montreal neighborhoods, I was ready for something different.
It actually took me a few false starts to get into the story; Larry Tremblay’s narrative has a long windup. Plot devices are half birthed on the pages, leaving the reader to sift through a pile of questions left in their wake. I felt as if I were interacting with the text while wearing large oven mitts. Where is this going? I wondered. Then, on page 45, I found the answer staring me smack between the eyes. From then on, I was hooked. I finished the book without moving from my chair.
Twins Amed and Aziz live in a nameless country ripped apart by violence. Within the first few pages, a bomb falls in the middle of the night, killing their grandparents. This death is the pivotal event that propels the narrative forward. Thus the cycle of hate begins; their father Zahed is filled with a vengeance that will have far-reaching and tragically violent consequences.
“That’s how I buried my parents. You saw me, I took my old shovel and I dug a hole. You saw the worms arriving to celebrate the burial. The hardest thing wasn’t throwing earth into the hole to cover it up. You saw me, I covered the hole completely. The hardest part was to search through the debris. My mother, I saw her head cracked open. I could no longer see the goodness of her face. Blood, there was blood on the broken walls, on the shattered plates. With my naked hands I scooped up what was left of my father. There was no end… No one should have to do that.”
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, for I think my reading was enhanced by not knowing where Tremblay was taking me. Written in a clear, poetic voice, The Orange Grove is an urgent book, an essential book. It is a love story: the love of a man for his parents, the love of a mother for her sons, the love shared between brothers. It is also a hate story, an exploration into the mechanisms that lead people to make unimaginable choices. Through the use of an omniscient narrator, the reader is privy to the secrets shared between characters. But secrets abound, and they are revealed, one by one, as their keepers see fit. I had goose bumps up and down my arms on numerous occasions.
I have a feeling that this was a very personal work for Larry Tremblay. He arguably writes himself into the novel as Mikaël, the playwright and acting teacher who grapples with finding a fitting ending to his play about the atrocities of war. He is hoping to see the humanity in it; hoping to understand what motivates a person to keep the cycle of hate alive. Upon learning Aziz’s story, Mikaël writes:
“It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when he who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked those conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history.”
I believe that such a relativistic observation is only part of the takeaway. While Tremblay’s novel seeks to understand what motivates these crimes against humanity it also seeks to condemn them. And how could we do otherwise when we learn what Zahed will ask of his nine-year-old son? The Orange Grove is a profoundly troubling story, but it is a story that must be told. It is also proof that fiction from Quebec can transcend borders and tackle themes that are universally human. Tremblay’s story will surely resonate with readers all over the globe.