Review of “The Almond in the Apricot” by Sara Goudarzi

by Ruchira Paul

Sewer designs… For me, it took about a year to exhaust my fascination with the underground maze of waste. That’s when I realized the single most important point to grasp about designing sewer lines is that the shit must flow downhill. That’s all one needs to know. Nothing else matters.” So muses Emma, a smart young sewer engineer and the protagonist of Sara Goudarzi’s debut novel The Almond in the Apricot. The book takes us through the convoluted maze of Emma’s own inner turmoil that begins to blur the boundaries between her physical world and her dreams.

Emma’s troubles begin shortly after the sudden accidental death of her best friend and confidante Spencer to whom she had felt more attracted physically and emotionally than she does to her kind and decent boyfriend Peter. The tragedy negatively affects both her personal and professional lives. Without the lively presence of Spencer as the third side of the triangle, Emma finds her romantic interest in Peter dwindling. Peter’s kindness and decency begin to strike Emma as bland attributes – “neither acidic nor alkaline, a perfect pH 7.0 of a human.”  She becomes careless and negligent at work. The most worrisome manifestation of Emma’s state of mind is the appearance of vivid, disturbing nightly dreams that encroach upon her waking hours. Emma begins to lose her footing in the real world, becoming exhausted, erratic and suspicious as also a bit of a schemer who no longer has too many qualms about betraying those close to her.

The main thread in the book is built around Emma’s dreams / nightmares which take place regularly like an unfolding serial story. In those dreams she sees a little girl Lily, around eleven years old, in a war torn country named Touran, far away from New Jersey where Emma lives and works. The dreams are eerily real, so much so that Emma becomes convinced that Lily’s experiences are her own at some inexplicable but very real level. The dreams appear to leave their traces in the physical world that Emma inhabits upon waking up. The acrid smell of burning during an air raid in the dream (do we experience smells in our dreams?) pervades Emma’s apartment when she gets up after a terrifying night. One morning Emma finds herself lying on her bathroom floor next to her own vomit after having watched Lily throw up in the bomb shelter in the previous night’s dream episode. Other objects and actions – a bird, a covered pathway between buildings, strong peppermint candy, the games of chess and hopscotch – that are associated with Lily of the dreams appear in Emma’s world unexpectedly the next day.

Unable to detach herself from the perilous trajectory of Lily’s life that she helplessly observes in her dreams and the panic she experiences at the prospect of looming tragedy, Emma confides in a work place colleague, consults a psychiatrist and manages to contact a sympathetic physics professor in order to find an explanation for the close affinity she feels with Lily. No one can provide a plausible answer except to suggest that she is undergoing a form of PTSD due to the extreme grief caused by the death of her beloved Spencer. Emma is adamant that it is not grief that is causing the dreams but rather some kind of a true and tangible connection she has with Lily. People do not take Emma seriously when she insists that the explanation for her unusual dreams lies somewhere in physics, involving parallel universes where one person can be simultaneously present at two different places at different times, both worlds being equally real.

The pre-publication reviews and the book’s dust cover blurbs are all positive and intriguing. Some call the novel magical and mysterious and others invoke scientific terms like space-time continuum and multiverses. For me The Almond in the Apricot did not quite come together as a satisfactory read. The author’s otherwise fluid writing style is incongruously punctuated by repeated and trivial references to the physical features of the characters (green eyes, long hair, tousled hair, perfect nose, deep dimples, crooked smile) and the description of their clothing and accessories (skinny black pants, gold colored chain necklace, light gray chambray shirt, ivory silk charmeuse blouse, high heels that make you walk in a certain way) which come across as jarring narrative diversions that add nothing to the story and leave little to the reader’s imagination. The ending of the book is abrupt – Emma’s deeply felt angst, doubts and confusion suddenly evaporate after one last slightly altered repeat dream about Lily in war ravaged Touran. She emerges from the fog of her anxiety perfectly calm and composed. It’s almost as if she decided to turn off a switch. Even the minor but irritating intra office politics mentioned in passing magically right themselves without Emma having to lift a finger.

Despite many allusions to parallel universes, the bending of time and space, black holes, worm holes, alternate realities, The Almond in the Apricot is not science fiction. It also does not shed  light on the poorly understood world of dreams. It is a light romantic novel that describes the end of one relationship and signals the beginning of another. In the space between the two, a grieving and distraught young woman tries to get her emotional “shit” together – above the city’s sewer lines.


Note: The Almond in the Apricot is due to be released on February 15th, 2022. The publisher sent an Advance Review Copy to 3 Quarks Daily.