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.
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?