Monday, October 8, 2012

Tatjana Soli's The Forgetting Tree

Last year I hosted a lively discussion of Ms. Soli's amazing debut novel about the first female photojournalists to serve in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The Lotus Eaters was simply beautiful for the evocative writing and the complicated theme of waging warfare in a country and on a people that we hopelessly misunderstood. This devastating error in judgement seems to have plagued the United States since World War II with no sign of diminishing.

So it was with trepidation that I opened what publishers and reviewers refer to as the "sophomore" effort, The Forgetting Tree. Believe me, there is nothing sophomoric about this incredible novel. Though the story is totally different from her first book, the descriptive, skilled use of language that lands you smack in the middle of the setting is there in spades.

A once prosperous citrus farm in California, owned by the Baumsarg family for several generations, is a living, breathing character thanks to what must have been extensive research on Soli's part. And it's through Claire, wife and daughter-in-law of the family, that readers feel the visceral love that comes from working the land. Claire can actually taste the soil and intuit how that year's crop will fare.

But times are changing, money is tight, other farmers are selling out to real estate developers, too much rain or not enough, plays havoc with the trees but Claire still cannot bring herself to quit. Her foreman Octavio and his family rely on her and she on them. She tells herself that she's hanging on for her family even though her husband left long ago and her girls can't wait to escape. What tethers her to her land? Her son Josh died there.

This novel is bookended by two violent acts that shake Claire to her very core. Each clarifies some of the central themes posed by Ms. Soli; excess, envy, hunger, need, how much is too much? How do we protect what's ours without incurring a violent reaction from those who have so little? When fighting for our lives, do our possessions lose their importance? What roles do race and culture play when resentment simmers just below the surface?

A remarkable character with multiple names, known to Claire as Minna, crashes the scene about halfway in and the novel takes on a seductive, surreal quality that had me tensely clutching my stomach. A bit of magical realism, some voodoo from Minna's native Dominica, and Minna spins a gossamer thread over the farm as she cares for Claire through a bout with cancer so realistically described that I could once again see my mom, almost thirty years ago, as she faced her final weeks.

Words fail me when I try to do justice to a novel like this one. The more talented the writer, the more inept I feel as I attempt to describe the essence of a book that I put down reluctantly at the denouement. Perhaps it won't speak to you but I must recommend that you at least give it a try and let me know what you think. Let's have a conversation! Visit Ms. Soli's website at

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