Wednesday, January 18, 2023

TBR Challenge: Sara Alexi - The Illegal Gardener

Driven by a need for some control in her life, Juliet sells up on impulse and buys a run down farmhouse in a tiny Greek village, leaving her English life behind. Her boys have grown and she has finally divorced her bullying husband. This is her time now.
Whilst making her new home habitable, Juliet discovers she needs a sturdy helping hand with the unruly and neglected garden. Unwilling to share her newfound independence with anyone, but unable to do all the work by herself, she reluctantly enlists casual labour.
Aaman has travelled to Greece from Pakistan illegally. Desperate to find a way out of poverty, his challenge is to find work and raise money for the harvester his village urgently need to survive.
What he imagined would be a heroic journey in reality is fraught with danger and corruption. Aaman finds himself in Greece, and with each passing day loses a little more of himself as he survives his new life as an immigrant worker; illegal, displaced, unwanted and with no value. Hungry and stranded, how will he ever make it back home to Pakistan?
In what begins as an uncomfortable exchange, Juliet hires Aaman to be her gardener, but resents the intrusion even though she needs the help. Aaman needs the work and money but resents the humiliation.
In spite of themselves, as the summer progresses, they get to know one another and discover they have something in common. Pieces of their lives they have kept hidden even from themselves are exposed, with each helping the other to face their painful past.
Will Juliet and Amaan finally let each other in? And what will be the outcome of this improbable conjoining of two lost souls?

Comment: The new year has barely started and it's already the middle of January! 

Once again, I've signed-up for the TBR Challenge and this year, the theme for this month is "starting over". I've decided to go with a book which I thought would be a romance but it isn't truly, featuring a British woman who is starting over in Greece after a divorce, and an illegal Pakistani man looking for a better life but facing terrible adversity in his attempt to start over again. I mean, practically a two-for-one deal...

In this novel we meet Aaman, a Pakistani man who went the illegal emigrant route so he could try to earn money and help his family back home. It's a common story among so many other men and women like him but he believed the journey would be a little less hard. He is now stuck in Greece, things are miserable and he can only have goals from day to day. One of those days, a woman who is looking for help hires him and another man to do some work around her garden....
Juliet is divorced and has two grown up sons but she decided to move to Greece so she could live her dream and heal in a place that would make her happy. She is wary at first by hiring those men and one of them she doesn't feel like hiring back. But as the days go by and she starts to understand Aaman a little, the closer their connection is. But Aaman can't control his life, what can Juliet do to help him become legal?

I should start by saying that this isn't a romantic story... Aaman and Juliet become friends and probably could be even more than that but circumstances don't really allow their relationship to be much more than that... I say this because the blurb and reviews might indicate romance and, in some way, one could see this as such, but there's no love story or HEA at the end... for me, it's more a story about connections, being true to yourself and the wonderful power of friendship and sacrifice.

The story has a very serious feel to it and doesn't hide from the hardships and corruption immigrants face, especially the illegal ones and how much prejudice and fear is constant in any interaction these people face. Aaman is portrayed as a man with a quest, as if his journey is one of those old knight stories where a man must accomplish a task in order to be recognized for his value. He isn't an immigrant for personal glory but because he wants to help his family and his village back in Pakistan.

Throughout the story we get to see plenty scenes/situations where Aaman is mistreated, deceived, hurt and how so many others have the same treatment and all this happens as in a vicious cycle because of corruption and lack of real strategy to help any poor immigrant seeking help in a different country. I won't go more into it, after all this is a real problem with no apparent solution in sight but let it be said the author summarized pretty well what these people would face. 

The theme is, therefore, too hard to ignore and makes the story have this permanent depressing tone, I must say. Still, Aaman is almost too good to be true, he has a kind heart and genuinely wants to help Juliet and not harm her and I could see how simple a relationship between two different people can be if people just respect one another. I can see how this would lead one to assume they would become a couple but I also believe the author's intention was more a portrayal of the situation than to have this amazing romance story.

Juliet is a bit easier to read, she is divorced and wants a new life, she is now trying to renovate the house she bought in Greece and she doesn't rust Aaman that much at first but with time they become friends. I loved the way we got to see their friendship blossom and despite the differences, how much in common they actually had. I also loved Juliet is a translator and she works in her own pace... although it felt she could find jobs very easily and I know it's not always exactly so...

When the story gets to a point where something has to happen, Juliet goes way beyond what a person probably would be able to do and I think some details were a bit too fantasy-like in how they are done, but it make the whole story have a goal, to show how friendship and love don't have to mean a couple emerges from shared experiences, in this case Juliet helps Aaman because she knows that is the definition of friendship and care for another, to help someone achieve what is important to them as she self realizes a friend helped her too, although at a different level.

I'd say this is a book more focused on possibilities and exemplifying what could happen if people would help each other more than when they judge. Aaman and Juliet as characters aren't stereotyped at all, which means we get to feel their relationship as unique and unlike the norm, something possible if not very likely, but truthful nonetheless. For me, these two did start over and managed to find peace or accomplishments at the end because they are good people and helped one another... 

I think the author had a goal with writing this story this way but the fictional parts, although sometimes a bit too unlikely, softened some issues and made for a good reading in general. Still, I couldn't help but think of this, that I had the feeling this was a book with an agenda. The fictional elements, mainly the character's actions and surroundings, didn't seem as strongly presented.
Grade: 6/10


  1. Sounds like a meaningful story to start off the Challenge with. While I like happy endings in my stories, I can get a little disappointed when the fantasy of making it too easy in certain circumstances detracts from how hard things can really be.

    1. I probably would think it would be too cheesy if there was an unlilkely HEA.... we are never fully happy!