As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh
Simply an amazing debut novel based on the ongoing conflict and atrocities in Syria!
Salama Kassab lives in Homs, Syria, an area held by the revolutionary Free Syrian Army as the dictatorship's militia slowly but surely beats them down. At 18 years old, she had completed one year of pharmacy school at the university when she lost her family. One day, her father and older brother, Hamza, were arrested and imprisoned for participating in a protest against the government. The following week, her mother was killed when their home was destroyed in a bombing raid. Salama had been blown free, barely surviving the blast. She now lives with her pregnant sister-in-law, Layla, while volunteering at the local hospital.
The dire circumstances in Homs, this last holdout of the FSA, necessitated that Dr. Ziad, the lead surgeon at the hospital, recruit and train Salama in surgery and emergency care – something she never imagined she would ever have to do. But without much other medical staff, she does what needs doing. Casualties are constant, day in and day out, as the dictator's army rains death and destruction down on the civilians in residential areas and schools. Snipers target children, pregnant women, and the elderly. Without a secure food or water supply, Salama and the surviving population of Homs are slowly starving to death. It's just a matter of time before the FSA retreats entirely, and the city is taken.
Salama had promised Hamza that should anything happen to him, she would get Layla to safety, and Layla wanted them both to escape to Germany. However, despite suffering from PTSD, exhaustion, and starvation, Salama is reluctant to abandon her duties and people. But as things continue down their desperate path, fate reconnects her with a young man from her past.
Kenan has also lost his parents to the fallout of his country's revolution. He is the sole caretaker of his younger brother, Yusuf, and younger sister, Lama. When Lama is struck by shrapnel during an attack on their neighborhood, he rushes her to the hospital for emergency care. Complications after Lama's surgery bring Salama to their home, where they discover their past connection. Like Salama, Kenan loves his country and does his part for the revolution by recording the protests and conditions in Homs and posting his videos online, revealing what is truly happening in Syria to the outside world. He wants to remain in Homs to fight, but he agonizes over the danger to his younger siblings as the FSA quickly loses its hold on the city and its residents face certain death.
As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow is the amazing debut novel by Syrian author Zoulfa Katouh. It is a gripping tale from start to finish and exudes the ever-present fear of the main characters and their neighbors. The story is absolutely heart-wrenching and made even more so with the understanding that it is based on actual events and ongoing conditions in Syria. The tension was constant from the beginning but continued to build as the story unfolded. The author doesn't pull any punches. There is no softening of the blows of the revolution's impact on the characters or the reader. There is death and danger at every turn of the page. I had to step away from the story to recover before going on. I can't imagine the reality of those that cannot.
The story is told in first-person from Salama's point of view, so we are privy to her thoughts and feelings. The effects of her PTSD manifest themselves in Khawf, who shows up at all hours of the day or night to harangue and taunt her. But Salama is an extraordinary and extremely likable young woman, a real underdog everyone will want to succeed. Amid her desperate daily life, romance finds its way to her, and it is accomplished in a most natural way and satisfying way.
The story isn't all heartbreak; there are moments of joy and recollections of good times. There are descriptions of life in pre-revolution Syria, college memories, friends and family, food and drink, and mentions of the glories of Syria's past. Layla and Salama have been best friends since childhood, and they still have some BFF moments, sharing secrets and giggling together when they can, although, under the circumstances, this is infrequent. (This book also presents one of the biggest and most shockingly blindsiding twists I have ever encountered in a plot. All I will say is I totally did not see that coming.)
With its engaging heroine and other main characters and tense, desperate plot, I highly recommend AS LONG AS THE LEMON TREES GROW to readers of young adult fiction and suspense, especially those who enjoy stories based on actual events. Please note that the subject matter is tough and comes with a list of content or trigger warnings.
I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from the author or publisher through NetGalley and TBR and Beyond Book Tours.