|A poor Palestinian boy growing up in Israel during the 1950s and 1960s endures persecution but eventually becomes a successful scientific researcher because of his mathematical skills.
The author, who was in Israel at the time as a Jewish American teenager, is probably not trying to write "mathematical fiction", but rather political fiction. Since my main focus here is on the math, I will get to that eventually, but first I need to say something about the book's primary aims. The suffering born by Ichmad and his family in the book -- the horrible deaths of many family members, the wrongful imprisonment and physical abuse of his father, the destruction of their family home and possessions as part of the punishment for his father's supposed involvement in terrorism, and unfair treatment when he attends an Israeli university -- are so horrific, I literally found it difficult to read. There are a few Israelis who are truly kind to Ichmad (including another top math student) and others who grow to be less horrible when they get to know him. The book is a little "one sided"; it has a viewpoint it wishes to present and does not make an attempt to balance it with opposing views. However, this is not much of a criticism as this viewpoint is being put forward to contrast others that already exist in literature and the media. It is difficult not to be moved by the tragedies, and there is also something incredibly potent about the contrast with his success in the world of academia.
Although his eventual degree and famous discoveries are in physics, as a child Ichmad is recognized for his mathematical skill. He participates in, and wins, an Israeli math competition. Several of the questions from the competition appear in the book, and some are actually interesting questions, but I think the key points are that he wins and the way he is treated by the Israelis. Later, we see him impressing his classmates and professors at the university with his mathematical skill. These questions are not so good (aside from being typeset incorrectly, they are not particularly difficult questions and so it seems strange when people are so amazed at his ability to answer them). But, again, the reader is just supposed to understand that Ichmad is very smart and that he is developing a reputation. Later, when an Israeli professor is forced to take Ichmad on as a research assistant, he does numerical simulations in chemistry, which presumably lays the foundation for his eventual breakthrough in physics.
Because it is possible to address difficult mathematical questions without much training or equipment, smart children are often first recognized because of their mathematical ability. Also, because mathematics contains objective truths (or, at least, as close as any human discipline gets to it) it is largely free from political bias and prejudice. These two facts explain the two roles that math plays in this novel: the recognition of his intelligence that first set Ichmad on a different path and his ability to succeed at the university despite the prejudices of his professors and classmates. However, even though math appears explicitly on many pages in the book, this is not the main focus of the book. In other words, math is a necessary but rather minor character in this story and so I will be giving the book a relatively low "mathematical content" rating. On the other hand, even though I found it a bit heavy handed, I agree that it is extremely well written and am giving it a top rating in "literary quality". You, of course, may vote differently. If you have read "The Almond Tree", please use the link below to enter your own ratings and comments.