Secrets Under the Olive Tree is a moving debut novel written by Palestinian-American writer, teacher, and poet, Nevien Shaabneh. It centers on the life of Layla Anwar, a carefree yet conflicted Palestinian girl born in a village overshadowed by the eyes of a community where judgmental gazes follow a girl’s every move; where whispers shuffle from ear to ear; and where a girl’s reputation is as delicate as thin glass.
Secrets Under the Olive Tree is a work of literary fiction that is wrought with secrets known and those untold, and the first chapter highlights the stain secrets can leave, no matter how deep they are buried. Innocence and naivety plunge Layla into a world where her questions remain unanswered, and it’s hoped that the scene she witnessed would simply be forgotten. Despite the wall of silence, Layla’s young eyes and mind come to realise why secrets must be kept when she tries to free herself of her own that threaten to further blacken her name – tainted on account of being born the wrong gender.
Being the only female amongst three male siblings would usually make any girl feel special, or at least be spoilt by relatives far and close, but Layla was singled out, shunned, and labelled a burden for a crime she remained unaware of ever committing. Journeying from war-torn Palestine to Chicago, cultures and customs remain intact amidst desires to be modern. Layla struggles to find her footing in a home so far from home; and with an abusive father who rarely looks her in the eye, the gentleness of her eldest brother remains her rock.
A refreshing and warming aspect of the book was the feature of a religious male character who transcends the stereotypical harsh and grizzly portrayal of men who feel close to their faith. Eiyad, Layla’s eldest brother, is gentle, kind, and far from overbearing, yet he isn’t perfect. Shaabneh struck a balance between humanity and Islam, and presented them as being mutually inclusive.
The theme of honour is heavily featured, with Layla being a scapegoat in a perceived conspiracy that her family name will be smeared. Boys must not be spoken to, must not become friends, and must stay a safe distance unless they’re prepared to take a woman’s hand in marriage. Yet, boys could do exactly as they pleased with very little fear of reproach as long as misdeeds occurred behind closed doors. Seeing and feeling the injustice both verbally and physically, a tumultuous string of events put Layla’s life at risk, and it takes kind souls unafraid of words that linger behind closed doors for her broken pieces to be set aright. Mistakes are made, and hard lessons are learned, and a bittersweet revelation seals the book in a finale that calls for a sequel.
This isn’t just a story about Layla and her father, but a story about several Arab women, and how cultural norms dictated the way they behaved in public. While the characters are fictional, their sense of loss, despair, and hope reflect a truth so many experience. Moments of heart shattering pain and loss mixed with overwhelming joy are ones readers can relish in, and its themes are those to be discussed in local and wider communities.
Touching on socio-political, cultural, and even legal issues surrounding the struggles of traversing displacement, self-worth, acceptance, honour, and love, Secrets Under the Olive Tree does justice to what could have become a book that weighs heavily on a political focus on Palestine.
Shaabneh interweaves both historical and Islamic knowledge amongst fiction, leaving the reader free from feeling talked down to. She paints a raw picture of the trials of being born a girl, in a patriarchal society, and how walking on eggshells can cause more damage to the self than the society it aims to appease.
Read an exclusive extract of Secrets Under the Olive Tree here
LaYinka Sanni is a UK-based editor, writer, and teacher who has been writing for longer than she can count on two hands. When she’s not mentoring writers, teaching, or editing, she can be found curled in a book or tapping words on her blog: http://www.LaYinkaSanni.com/