“Three shrivelled lemons and a plastic bag of pita bread that’s more dry than mouldy sit next to one another. That’s all this supermarket has to offer.”
Set amidst the Syrian revolution, Zoulfa Katouh’s YA novel plunges the reader straight into the bleak world of eighteen-year-old Salama. No food, bombed neighbourhoods and smashed dreams; Salama has lost everything. With her mother gone and father and brother imprisoned, she alone is left to look after her heavily pregnant sister-in-law, Layla, whilst volunteering at the hospital. Her days are filled with treating the wounded with little or no anaesthetic and she increasingly becomes torn between two choices: continue to stay and risk her life or take a chance at survival for herself, Layla and the unborn baby via a boat. But then she meets Kenan, the boy with vivid green eyes who firmly believes in fighting for his country, and the decision gets harder.
Katouh’s writing is simple, expressive and engaging. She creates characters that stay with you long after the turning of the final page and their dilemmas throughout the novel lead readers to ponder on the complexities of human character. Her treatment of difficult themes such as guilt and refugee trauma is sensitive and well-researched. It also offers readers a brave insight into PTSD and it’s lived consequences.
Against the backdrop of pain and loss, the blossoming romance between Salama and Kenan brings an innocent and optimistic tone to the plot; their relationship is a simple reminder that life and love endures in spite of war. They also both turn to their faith for strength and guidance, which is another nod to authentic Muslim representation (one that I particularly enjoyed and found relatable as a Muslim reader) in a novel rich with culture.
As long as the Lemon Trees Grow may be a devastating portrayal of life in Homs, but Zoulfa weaves a narrative of fierce hope and determination for a better life, which makes the book a truly beautiful read.
Asma Ali is a mum of four and current MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She has a healthy addiction to all things literary and coffee and can be found sharing her eclectic reading journey on Instagram @asma_scribendi