I am a big fan of Tracy Chevalier. "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" was one of my most favourite reads when it came out and I remember being quite overwhelmed with Chevalier's prose and evocative description. I have read all her books to date - except the short stories collection she edited called "Reader I Married Him" -which I bought in hardback but it still sits next to my bed, ever hopeful that one night I might actually have the chance to pick it up! But each of her novels is a treat and I always have a huge sense of anticipation before I read one, bracing myself for a journey through a rich landscape of well crafted, imaginative worlds. I love her historical detail, depiction of place and setting, female characters and the intensity of her writing.
"At the Edge of the Orchard" does not disappoint and yet again Chevalier rewards us with a beautifully crafted story full of poignancy and drama, all told through her mesmerising narrative voice.
This novel is starts off in 1838 in Ohio. James and Sadie Goodenough have settled in the swamps of northwest Ohio, trying to cultivate the fifty apple trees required in order to stake their claim on the property. It has not been an easy job in the misery of the "Black Swamp, with its stagnant water, its stench of rot and mild, its thick black mud that even scrubbing couldn't get out of skin and cloth." The Goodenoughs have five children and all of them work relentlessly trying to tame the land and grow a successful orchard. The depiction of their existence is brutal and hard. I could feel the squelch of the mud around me and the never ending chores that seemed to yield them so little reward.
Life is brutal and not surprisingly this is an unhappy family. Sadie drinks and disassociates herself from things when she is able. We hear from her in alternate chapters (the others narrated in third person following James's point of view) and although the lack of punctuation takes a little getting used to, Chevalier has created a very vivid and compelling voice.
"I never wanted to live in the Black Swamp. Who would? It aint a name that draws you in. You get stuck there, more like - stuck in the mud and cant go no further, so you stay cause theres land and no people, which is what we were looking for."
Sadie's passages felt so real it was as if I could hear her talking. And I could see why she felt bitterness, resentment, frustration - and even why she drank.
"I hear theres land out west thats got no trees on it at all. Prairie. Lord send me there."
The whole family have suffered great hardship as they try to build a life for themselves in the depths of the sinking swamp and it is no surprise that Sadie and the children have become the way they are. It was really interesting to read about such detached and disaffected children - so young and yet so tainted. The emotional affect the environment has on their lives, children, interaction with each other and their own moods is fascinating.
"Sal shrugged, a gesture she used often. Even aged twelve she had learned that it was no good caring about things too much, and she held the world at an arm's length."
But the swamp also has a power over some of the characters. The fierce bond between the trees, the swamp and James is shown when they visit Perrysburgh. At first James admires the right angles, the white wash, the curtains, the clothes but then he misses the purity of the swamp and the way actually their life is more controlled with their intimate shared responsibility, care and respect for their space. It also gives him an opportunity to show us his feelings for Sadie as she struggles to engage with the women in the town, emphasising how unsuited she actually would be a life here. Perhaps it also allows us a moment of empathy for her character which is not always very attractive or likeable.
"Women might shun her, but James would not."
We then move on to a selection of letters written by Robert who escapes the confines of the family and sets off into the wider world. Chevalier reminds us of the historical and social setting with the jump in time as we leap a few years ahead and each letter moves us further ahead again. Communication and keeping in touch with family was so very different then - as was education shown through Robert's skill in writing.
Robert is perhaps the most likeable character in the novel and is certainly the most calm and thoughtful. I really enjoyed the section where he met William Lobb and began to get involved with the naturalist's work.
"Q," Robert repeated, "What's that?"
"A botanical garden outside of London - the finest in the world."
Robert is perplexed by why Lobb is sending samples of the trees and plants back to England - "Don't they have trees in England?" - but soon finds himself intrigued by the work and developing a passion and interest for the research and preparation of the collections which then travel to London.
But can he ever fully rebuild a new life for himself? Can he escape the reason he left home in the first place?
There is a beautiful sense of claustrophobia and inevitability when Robert reaches the ocean which reflects the atmosphere of the novel. Chevalier has such an exquisite way with words that she is able to convey so much emotion, rawness and magnitude with just a few sentences.
"Robert's awe of the sight of the ocean was joined by an undertow of sadness. He had reached the end of the country, and was as far from Ohio as he could get; he could go no further. The thought of having to turn around and face east filled him with such guilt and despair that he felt sick with it."
I will say no more about the plot and the characters for fear of spoilers only to say that I liked the metaphorical use of trees to help underline some of the themes in the book too.
"Trees are ruthless. They fight each other for light, for water, for all the good things that are in the ground. They survive only when they have enough space between them."
And, trees only ever need the "right place to take root." How true. And how profound in a novel about a pioneer family.
This book reminded me of "A Place Called Winter" by Patrick Gale and will be enjoyed by fans of historical fiction, literary fiction and all of Chevalier's previous novels. It was a pleasure to read and I am thrilled that NetGalley and the publishers granted my wish for an advanced copy!
At the Edge of the Orchard will be published by The Borough Press on 23rd February 2017.
19 October 1962 in Washington, DC. Youngest of 3 children. Father was a photographer for The Washington Post.
Nerdy. Spent a lot of time lying on my bed reading. Favorite authors back then: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Joan Aiken, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander. Book I would have taken to a desert island: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.
BA in English, Oberlin College, Ohio, 1984. No one was surprised that I went there; I was made for such a progressive, liberal place.
MA in creative writing, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, 1994. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not you can be taught to write. Why doesn’t anyone ask that of professional singers, painters, dancers? That year forced me to write all the time and take it seriously.
Moved to London after graduating from Oberlin in 1984. I had studied for a semester in London and thought it was a great place, so came over for fun, expecting to go back to the US after 6 months to get serious. I’m still in London, and still not entirely serious. Even have dual citizenship – though I keep the American accent intact.
1 English husband + 1 English son + 1 tortoiseshell cat.
Before writing, was a reference book editor, working on encyclopedias about writers. (Yup, still nerdy.) Learned how to research and how to make sentences better. Eventually I wanted to fix my own sentences rather than others’, so I quit and did the MA.
Talked a lot about becoming a writer as a kid, but actual pen to paper contact was minimal. Started writing short stories in my 20s, then began first novel, The Virgin Blue, during the MA year. With Girl With a Pearl Earring (written in 1998), I became a full-time writer, and have since juggled it with motherhood.
You can follow me on Twitter for more recommendations and reviews @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)