The Weight of a Mustard Seed, by Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson was Kim’s choice (Reading Matters) for the Riverside Readers book Group. It was our first non-fiction book and turned out to be an excellent choice provoking a variety of different viewpoints and making for a discussion that started out on the balance of power in Iraq and ending up as an exploration of whether the Internet could be used to control the world!

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a patchwork of stories that Steavenson collected during her time in Iraq as a journalist from 2003 onwards. She focuses on the life of General Kamel Sachet, using her interviews with his family and friends to explore the mindset and motivation of an Iraqi general and from this, the wider effect of the violent history of Iraq on its people.

I would describe The Weight of a Mustard Seed as a Fiction, Non-fiction hybrid. Steavenson mixes stylistic elements like themed chapters (Shame, Pride, Waiting) and some wonderful descriptive prose with cold hard fact and detailed descriptions of battles and dialogues between key characters. I particularly appreciated the way that Steavenson used references to everyday things to emphasise that Iraq was a civilised country like any other, interspersed with images of violence to show the effect of the years of war in it’s becoming a place of chaos and tragedy.

Steavenson takes journalistic license to re-interpret the motivations of the people she talks to. In parts she makes sweeping statements which might be bordering on patronising, but more times than not, she does effectively to sum up her viewpoint for the reader.

“It was an ordinary everyday tragedy, the same as any other of the unnumbered millions, a man killed….It was a tragedy of hubris: of pride, over-confidence, self certainty. Kamel Sachet’s end was a very Iraqi tragedy, but Iraq was not a Shakespeare play, plotted as one man, his destiny and a final curtain. It was only an episode in a long-running serial.”

Of course, Steavenson as an outsider that means that she has to interpret and puzzle over the behaviours of the people she meets and I think that this mirrors the perspective of the reader, themselves a ‘foreigner’ trying to understand the characters. I felt that she did a good job of representing what she saw faithfully and at the same time bringing in her own viewpoint.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Although some idea of the history of the Iraqi wars does admittedly help, I don’t think that the reader would lose the overall mood or miss the themes that Steavenson conveys without this knowledge. In a way I feel as if the dates and events are just collateral around which Stevenson plots the human aspects of the book. If anything, The Weight of a Mustard Seed could be read as a starting point from which a reader would be inspired to learn more.

I found The Weight of a Mustard Seed a fascinating and moving piece of writing. I thought that Stevenson was subtle enough not to need to linger too long on particular violent incidents, while conveying the threatening mood and sadness of the situation to great effect. She seeks to understand the behaviour of Kamel Sachet but doesn’t let him off the hook, weighing up his bravery, his faults and his crimes, provoking the reader into thinking for themselves.

My rating:

7.5 out of 10

Other thoughts on this book can be found at: Savidge Reads

Have you read any good books about Iraq? Do you prefer to read factual books or learn about the world indirectly through fiction?

13 responses to “The Weight of a Mustard Seed, by Wendell Steavenson

  1. Found your blog via Savidge Reads blogroll :)

    That book does sound intriguing; and its quite interesting to read something about Iraq beyond discussions of the war in contemporary British/American news reports, which are by their nature brief, western-centric and written about a particular (and generally narrow) set of events and period of time. It’s good to get a broader awareness.

    Personally, I really like reading a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. I think you can supplement your awareness of things quite well in that way. I like getting a grasp of history and facts from the non-fiction, but fiction – when well-written and researched – has a way of permitting you into the lives of people and communities and the impacts of the events that get written about in the non-fiction books, which is an aspect that doesn’t always come through in non-fiction. Which is fine; in many ways, they’re for different things.

    I have a book about Iraq! I got Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq a little while ago. It’s pretty weighty, though, so I’ve kind of been waiting for a time when I have a bit more leisure to focus on it.

    • Hello Jenny!

      I’m the same as you, I think a mixture is good although I do tend to lean towards fiction, and then look up things on the internet (lazy!). But you’re right, you get a totally different perspective from non-fiction. Wow, that does look like a weighty book, perhaps it’s one to dip into and read the odd chapter now and again…

  2. Weeell, I like weighty, but just when I have the time and necessary brainpower available! Both are a bit of a luxury on a day to day basis… Fiction is definitely better for post-work reading purposes, so I read more of that too!

  3. Great post on this book Polly and hoorah you got to give it that 7.5 that you so wanted hahaha.

    Also how random we seem to be reading the same book without having discussed it before hand!!!

    • novelinsights

      Haha yes – actually I’m not sure if .5 is getting a bit detailed but never mind!

      Castle of Otranto? What a coincidence! Perhaps it was just time for something a bit frivolous! Have finished now so will have to se what we both think!

  4. Great review, Polly. I still haven’t written mine up yet.

    As an aside, the cover of your book looks different to mine. My cover only has one picture hanging on the wall; yours seems to have a lot more!

    • novelinsights

      Thanks Kim! I think it’s one that I needed to mull over a bit before Posting. It was a great choice. That was just an image from Google, maybe it was the hardback?

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  6. Hi, I too found your blog through Savidge Reads :)

    Great review! I love the sound of this book – I thought it was fiction, going by the cover, actually. It sounds like “literary non-fiction”. I’ve been looking for good books on Iraq so I’ll look out for this one.

    • Glad you stumbled here through the lovely Savidge Reads! It’s definitely a good book, hope you enjoy if you get a copy!

  7. I prefer to learn about the world through fiction, but enjoy the odd non-fiction title. I thought this was a thought-provoking read, but it lacked the emotional power of fiction books I’ve read on similar subjects.

    • I’m definitely the same as you on this. I think that’s why I gave it a 7.5, somehow I felt it could have pulled at my heartstrings more but then perhaps that wasn’t it’s purpose. When I think of books like A Thousand Splendid Suns, that are fiction but with characters based in reality, those are the ones that really have made an impact on me wanting to know more about other cultures.

  8. Pingback: Novel Insights’ April Review « Novel Insights

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