It’s quite cathartic to read a short story so heavily character driven on a very specific trauma, and which does so with grace and poise. The Apple-Tree Throne by delivers on a familiar theme with a twist: a soldier who cannot reintegrate, who struggles throughout the book; an aristocratic family replacing a son; and a ghost who is up to no good.
The story is in a world not unlike our own, but different on some fundamental levels. The backdrop is set at the turn of what is probably the 19th or 20th century, and The Great Republic of Britannia has involved itself in a World War with the Federation and other world powers being involved in some vague way. The war was only stopped after the Massacre of Burantai Pass and the radio vizcast (a kind of black-and-white television) following the capture of its Major-General Wickersley who led the assault.
Lt. Benjamin Braddock is a survivor of the Burantai Pass Massacre and returns to his country a shattered man: broken by the guilt of survival; enraged at the senselessness of the war; and chased by ghosts both figurative and literal. Yet, despite coming back from the war as a kind-of-hero, Braddock finds himself unable to reintegrate into society. His friends all have homes and families and shrug the war off like a coat, while the Wickersley Family only want Braddock around to be seen, rather than heard. To make matters worse for Braddock, the ghost of Wickersley— his commander— haunts him, and grows ever more restless and demanding with every interaction.
I thoroughly enjoy the way Mohamed treats the subject of war in Apple-Tree Throne and Braddock’s involvement in it. I was constantly imagining that this is the way soldiers would talk about their experiences; never openly, and speaking in such vague terms so civilians can read into it in whichever way they want and hiding the truth of the matter— that the glory they’re looking for doesn’t exist. Mohamed’s writing of Braddock’s recollections of the war in plain language makes it quite easy to empathise with his feelings on the matter, and how it has shaped him.
The other way the war haunts Braddock are through his actions. Even as his friends are settling back into things, Braddock is lost, listless, and unable to reconcile himself that the war is actually over, and getting increasingly frustrated that he can’t do anything. Even Braddock’s conversations start to strain because of this. I recall a conversation near the beginning of the story wherein one of his friends asks him how his pained leg is, and Braddock’s internal monologue sets off on an angry, self-loathing diatribe followed by a completely British understatement to hide the feelings. He wants to tell people. He needs to tell people. but he’s trapped on both sides by the the social expectations of a soldier, and stoic emotionless British masculinity.
What I also like about Apple-Tree Throne is the way in which Mohamed portrays the inter-class struggle Braddock has to go through. Throughout the story he makes pains to highlight that he is absolutely, definitely, lower class; someone who barely had enough money to even find food to eat, and that the only way he’s even managed to survive has been through the opportunity of war. And so when he’s thrust into the upper-class world of the aristocracy which the Wickersleys live in, Braddock is absolutely definitely out of his depth, and makes no pains in telling the reader this.
This class-struggle starts when the Wickersley family offer to house him in one of their estates, communicated across with all the subtle yet condescending language of the upper-class, with manners forcing him to accept. But as the story progresses it becomes more and more apparent that Braddock’s role in the family is to become the trophy of triumph and glory their disgraced son could not be.
And on top of all of this is the ghost of Theo Wickersley, who is taking the time to make Braddock’s sleeping life an absolute misery, but whom is the only one in the world that Braddock can actually talk to about the events that happened. Mohamed does a stellar job of developing and revealing more about their relationship as the story progresses, culminating in a satisfactory end that wraps everything in a nice little bow.
The Apple-Tree Throne is a wonderful, nuanced, and extremely well written character story that packs a solid punch in the short amount of time you get to spend with the book. There were a few times when I had to put my phone down as I was reading to catch my breath. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend heartily.