I write this sitting on the upstairs porch. Still away on my break, I have a stunning sunset ahead of me, I have finished another of my holiday reads and wanted to have a little chat to you all about it.
I’d received a proof of the new Tracy Chevalier a couple of months ago (it is out in hardback now) but for some reason it was one of those books that I didn’t race straight into. This is no bad thing, I often like to wait until I am in the right place and time for a book, they sit on my shelf and I wait for them to call to me. Even if a new title comes out by one of my all time favourite authors this does not mean I will rush it, maybe a good book is like a good wine?!
I’d read the short story collection ‘Reader, I Married Him’ which was edited by Chevalier and featured one of her own contributions as well (I wrote about it here if you want to have a read) but basically I ADORED that book, I cannot praise her highly enough for the work she did, curating some of the finest authors of our time and making this collection flow. Even though this project is completely different to her new novel I do tend to like to leave a gap between reading two pieces by the same author. So this book waited and waited, until last week, when I packed my bags for this holiday. Without hesitation my hand reached to the shelf and grabbed it with determination – the time had come, it was placed in the case as a ‘chosen one’.
We hear from three different voices in this novel and it is not told in chronological order, there are some time jumps back and forth, and letters often fill in the detail of moments we have not been present for. I am happy with all of the above but since working in a bookshop have found that a lot of people prefer a ‘beginning, middle, end’ format and that letters can be a big no no, so if you are one of these people – consider yourself warned!
Finding ourselves in Black Swamp, Ohio, we hear alternately from married couple Sadie and James, who moved to the area not long after their wedding ceremony, when it became clear there was going to be no family land left for them to inherit (due to actual amount of land or family feeling towards James’ choice of wife is up for debate). Having always worked with apples they intend to carry on doing so in the place they now call home, but the conditions they find themselves in aren’t exactly favourable to this. Everywhere is thick with mud, the ground is hard to work and disease keeps picking off the younger members of the family one by one, it is no surprise the pressure mounts on this couple and a canyon, more than a crack, is beginning to show.
The fruit they reap brings about two varieties as different as the couple themselves. Sadie favours the spitters as they are turned into her one true companion now, cider. She bitterly resents what are considered as James’ apples, ‘eaters’ which have made there way over from England in years gone by, sweet with an aftertaste of pineapple. As tensions between the couples rise the land where the apples are grown becomes their battlefield and there is most definitely walking wounded, as you watch their numerous young children try and live amongst this toxic relationship.
With a sudden jump forward in time we start to read the letters of one of these children now grown up, Robert, writing back home to his family about his experiences as he travels west across America, and boy, does he have experiences. Robert seems to dabble a little in any trade that can be imagined and even ends up spending time behind bars because of dubious activities that a boss gets him involved in. As his letters go on you begin to realise that they are never being answered, and that Robert may have left home for reasons more troubling than gaining simple employment opportunities.
The narrative then takes us back to what would most definitely be considered the last of Roberts childhood, as a shocking turn of events send the family onto a whole new path, an already difficult life becoming even more torturous. We spend the second half of the novel looking at why Robert left, if he can ever escape what happened in his past and if he can make something of his future. After the turbulence of his family life and younger years you desperately hope the second half of the book will offer up something of a reprieve for him, that the sun will shine down and the fruit of his life will be plentiful and good.
I really enjoyed how Chevalier told this story of generations of a family working in a trade I knew so little about and the way she portrayed the struggles that arose from within their four walls and the landscape surrounding them, at times I just wanted to scream to the characters ‘GET OUT!’. The Black Swamp seemed relentlessly bleak and the parents so goddam horrid and abusive it is a sign of well written prose that you want to stick with this novel. I can’t say I will rave about this book to others though, I enjoyed it yes, but for me I needed more. I didn’t feel hugely engaged with these characters, especially the parents. Brief hints and explanations were given as to why they had ended up as such stubborn and deeply unpleasant individuals as I found them to be, but this never felt enough for me, I wanted more understanding, more history of the characters if I was to have any empathy for them. I wanted MORE of Chevaliers writing, that is my actual complaint boiled down.
So all in all I found this to be a perfectly enjoyable read that I think will tick the boxes for those who have enjoyed other books by Chevalier, but for me I just needed that something extra, I take characterisation very seriously and if I can’t understand a protagonist, where they are coming from and there motivations, then there will always be something lacking for me.
At The Edge Of The Orchard by Tracy Chevalier £16.99 (The Borough Press)
Have you read it? Let me know what you thought! Also, what is most important to you when you are reading, are you all about character, plot, description, style? What pulls you in and ticks the all important box?
Until next time, happy reading!