The Baghdad Clock (2016): Shahad Al Rawi

★★½

I’ve been struggling with this book on and off for about a year, which is odd, because many people have written enthusiastic reviews of it. It’s the kind of book that, to be slightly cynical, one feels that one should admire. Essentially autobiographical, it tells the tale of a young girl, her friends and her neighbourhood in Baghdad, beginning in 1991 and finishing in 2003. It invites us to imagine growing up under the cloud of two wars and crippling sanctions. It shows us a picture of a community which remains resilient in the face of hardship for as long as it can, and it traces the things which remain important even when your country is falling apart: love, hope, the dreams of the future. And I do admire the spirit and the courage of the neighbourhood memorialised in the novel. What jarred with me, however, is the way the story is told: detached and dreamlike, it wanders in and out of magical realism without any sense of narrative discipline. Some readers have found that charming; for me, alas, it felt only messy.

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The President’s Gardens (2012): Muhsin Al-Ramli

★★★★

For many of us, Iraq as an entity is summed up by the images of air strikes on the news and by the rhetoric of politicians and military leaders. It is a place that for all my life has seemed profoundly ‘other’: my earliest memories of seeing war on television are of the Gulf War, when I was five years old. So I came to this book with curiosity, hoping to learn more about the people who have suffered such an existence. Written by the expatriate Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli, it’s a haunting, often horrific tale of three close friends in a rural community, whose lives intersect with the tragedy and chaos of their country.

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