DRIVING OVER LEMONS by Chris Stewart
No sooner had Chris Stewart set eyes on El Valero than he handed over a check. Now all he had to do was explain to Ana, his wife, that they were the proud owners of an isolated sheep farm in the Alpujarra Mountains in Southern Spain. That was the easy part.
Lush with olive, lemon, and almond groves, the farm lacks a few essentials—running water, electricity, an access road. And then there’s the problem of rapacious Pedro Romero, the previous owner who refuses to leave. A perpetual optimist, whose skill as a sheepshearer provides an ideal entrée into his new community, Stewart also possesses an unflappable spirit that, we soon learn, nothing can diminish. Wholly enchanted by the rugged terrain of the hillside and the people they meet along the way—among them farmers, including the ever-resourceful Domingo, other expatriates and artists—Chris and Ana Stewart build an enviable life, complete with a child and dogs, in a country far from home.
THERE ARE NO SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
Given the ban on travel because of the current pandemic, and a series of unfortunate events that have prevented us from even wandering around Ireland, I’ve taken lately to travelling vicariously through other people’s accounts of their journeys and life experiences in various parts of the world. In this adventure we’re off to Andalucia in the 1980s with the first drummer of the band Genesis (I bet he’s sick of being described in that way at this stage), his wife and a menagerie of both human and non-human characters. This memoir is an easy read and if I’m to be honest it’s suffering from a dated feel at this stage, even though the version I read was a 25th anniversary edition with an extra chapter (that didn’t really add anything to the overall story).
I was attracted to the book because of a couple of factors, the first of which was the whole idea of people reaching a stage in life where they realise their current script is not the one they want to continue to follow. That leads them to rewrite their story and move towards an alternative narrative. It doesn’t have to be emigrating to another country to live off-grid as in this case, although that helps.
The other factor was a memory the title evoked of a visit with the ban chéile to Seville in the early noughties where for the first time in my life we walked through an citrus scented city, where oranges grow on city streets and simply drop, unnoticed by the natives, to the ground. This was amazing to me, a man from a temperate zone city, where the nearest thing to a fruit tree outside of a garden or orchard were horse chestnut trees in local parks.
I have to say Driving Over Lemons had its moments where the author managed to help the reader feel the warmth of the Spanish sunshine and even embrace the wildness of nature in the foothills of the Andalucian mountains. But it mostly made me feel a little uncomfortable with it’s depictions of peasant Spaniards with canny ways of eeking out a living in harsh conditions, contrasted against an arty/new age ex-pat community who chose to live amongst them in order to remove themselves from comfortable ‘civilisation’. I don’t believe that was the intention of the author and I do believe the book was a product of its time, but it would have been interesting if the chapter written 31 years later had even hinted at how the story would have been portrayed in a contemporary setting.
It sags a bit at times but it’s worth a read to see at least one person’s experience of being a stranger in a strange land in a moment in time, and Stewart has an easy way of writing about himself and his family that is relatable and human.