Published in paperback by Hoopoe Fiction, August 2018
The recent shenanigans over red paint being thrown over a war memorial soldier made out of scraps of tin in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, highlight how much pearl-clutching is still happening over memorialising WWI. To my mind, it’s unedifying to wring one’s hands over paint on a statue when WWI was an unrelenting, unrestrained, bloody, horrific, unnecessary sh*tshow from start to finish. This desire to sanitise, make decent, something that is indecent both in conception and execution – I don’t understand it. Thank God, then, for Ruqaya Izzidien’s debut novel which reminds the reader of exactly that. The Watermelon Boys explores the effect of that war on a family in Mesopotamia (Iraq, as is) and a young boy growing up in Wales and it is heartbreakingly beautiful and sad.
Through the eyes of Ahmed in Baghdad and Carwyn in Wales, we see how imperialism in its ultimate form – the war to end all wars – destroyed (destroys) societies, lands, peoples – as well as the souls of the men it coerces into fighting on its behalf. This poisonous legacy is the grandfather of the Gulf Wars and the great-grandfather of terrorist movements and protracted wars in the region. Izzidien paints an evocative picture of society in Baghdad, where Jews and Muslims live together as friends, before the Arabs are betrayed by the British after the war is over. Carwyn, forced into volunteering by a brutish English stepfather, is beaten by his schoolmaster for speaking too many words of Welsh. Their plights are not the same, but neither are they are altogether different.
Ahmad is in many ways a quiet hero, retaining his values and integrity in spite of the viciousness of war around him and the losses he suffers. He is sustained by his wife Dabriya, a courageous woman, but even she cannot banish his memories of war. The battle scenes in which he is involved are impeccably described and Izzidien’s hard work is clear to discerning readers. There are moments of sharp humour and observation among the tragic arc.
The novel, although powerful, is not to my mind perfect. The younger characters felt interchangeable, and the romance between Amina and Yusuf didn’t move me that much. Also, the author has an understandable tendency to over-editorialise in the last section when the English are selling out the Arabs and demanding to be thanked for it. Allowing the abominable facts, and the characters’ reactions to them, to speak for themselves would strengthen the outrage, not diminish it as Izzidien seems to fear it might. But those caveats aside – and some of the best-written books I’ve read have greater flaws – this is a powerful, beautiful novel, demanding to be read by anyone interested in WWI fiction, and those who are not.