Friday, 25 April 2008

Jasmine's Tortoise by Corinne Souza

Jasmine’s Tortoise is the first novel of Corinne who has written non fiction books about her family’s involvement in spying and her experiences as a lobbyist during the Major-Blair years. It is clear that much of Corinne Souza life is woven into the novel’s mix of fictional and historical events that unfolds from1965 to 2002. Souza’s father is clearly used as a source for Jasmine’s father and she like Jasmine owes her British passport to the spy trade.

The book covers 40 turbulent years from the ellipse of the Puppet Hashemite monarchy by secular Arab nationalism to its eventual challenge by Islamic militancy and Kurdish nationalism. These local changes are shaped if not controlled by the ebb and flow of the big three imperial powers: Britain, America, and Russia, who gradually became the big two and then finally in the 90’s just the big one. These complex social and political changes are explored through the fates of three families: the Palameries- Roman Catholic Indian traders, the Solomon’s, the last of Bagdad’s old Jewish families and the El-Tareks- a well heeled Muslim family with a presence in the old and emerging social-political elites.

The story starts in Bagdad when the British niceties of Masonic lodges, Horse Racing, dances and formal parties, are in the final throes of death with a family party. Tragedy is triggered when Jasmine is given a tortoise by her grandfather. Peter Ligne, the local MI6 bureau spymaster claims it from him. This hurts her grandfather’s feelings so his friend Nico Stollen, the KGB spymaster, is pulled into a rivalry to protect Jasmine. Thus starts a struggle for her “soul” that will see betrayal and death rip the families apart mirroring the wider betrayal of Iraq. Forty years later the younger generation and older family survivors fight for Jasmine’s redemption as Nico Stollen and Peter Ligne pull the strings to the final moments.

The book is structured with a prologue setting out all the main characters and their relationship in 2002 before diving back to Bagdad in 1965. It then jumps in linear stages to 2002 and we follow the twists and turns of the characters as they die, marry, betray and manipulate with bitter and unintended consequences. Expect lots of twists and unexpected turns as the plot sets a good pace as you keep a track on who is who. If in doubt dip back to the prologue as the characters and their relationships are set out as if a route map.

Clearly an ambitious and multi-layer story so does it work? Only partly has to be the honest answer. The flaw is that the writing does not match the ambition of the story. The characters are often two-dimensional, and clichés with barely distinguishable voices but they do serve as effective pegs to move the plot on at a quick pace. And who complains when Fleming and Agatha Christies characters serve the same purpose?

We also have a POV that switches character within the same page as well as an irritating habit of the writer as untended narrator explaining words and actions. This would have been fine in a historical account but not in a novel as it all adds to effect of the reader being distant and observing rather then participating in the story. Again fine as long as the reader is interested in plot rather then character driven stories.

So is the plot credible? The opening prologue is over complex and slows the introduction to the story; this could have perhaps been better handled perhaps as a press interview of Jasmine so become a narrative that intrigues us. Nor do we have the back story of why key central characters are so loyal to each other. The importance given to British Intelligence, Masons and Employer associations stretches credibility. But Lodges were in the British Middle East until closed down in the mid 60’s, and until the 90’s employees with a radical past were black-listed and British intelligence did play dirty tricks with the Labour Party. And as for the corruption of the Government sponsored arms trade just read the latest news headlines! So the story is an exaggeration and simplification of the truth which will irate some readers but not all.

In the end, the potential fatal flaw of the novel is who is the intended readership? In wanting to explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, it suffers in comparison with Graham Greene who managed to combine serious literary acclaim with wide popularity. Yet it lacks the technically detailed espionage and military science storylines of say a Tom Clancy or the focus on one heroic man, or a small group of crusading individuals, in a struggle against powerful adversaries of say a Robert Ludlum. Despite these reservations and limitations it is still a good holiday read but given a good cast, and screenplay it would really work as a mini commercial TV series.

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