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Tale about loss can't meet promise of debut novel

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SPANNING nearly two decades, this sophomore novel by California writer Tatjana Soli (The Lotus Eaters) is a flawed contemporary tale about loss, change and displacement in the intertwined lives of Claire Baumsarg, a middle-aged rancher and her companion.

At the outset, Claire's 10-year-old son is abducted and brutally slain. The family never fully recovers from the tragedy. After Claire and her husband split up, she devotes her life to running the ranch with much success.

Fast forward 15 years. Claire develops breast cancer and hires a caregiver to help her get through the treatment. Enter Minna, a charming Halle Berry look-alike whom Claire's daughter briefly met at a coffee shop.

Caribbean born-Minna is a PhD student at Berkeley, but wants to take a break from her courses. As well, she is the great-granddaughter of Claire's favourite author, Jean Rhys, who wrote the novel The Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre.

Intrigued by Minna's connection with Rhys, Claire hires the young woman on the spot without asking for references. Bad idea. Minna turns into the caregiver from hell, yet Claire refuses to fire her. To say more would reveal spoilers from the plot.

The book's title refers to a ritual whereby African slaves circled a tree several times to allow them to forget memories of their home country.

For both Minna and Claire, the title is ironic. Minna never quite forgets her life back home, nor can Claire erase memories of her murdered son.

Soli is at her best at portraying the family dynamics in the aftermath of the tragedy. At the same time, she vividly captures the physicality of the farm in cinematic prose, as when Claire witnesses a fire on the ranch.

"Black smoke formed itself into the unforgiving blue sky," Soli writes. "A single, wide lick of flame reached from ground to topmost branch, a reversed lightning. Leaves dried out, then curled to gold, then black ash. The rinds of lemons grew rigid and tight, then burst, releasing a thick blood of juice."

The novel is divided into four parts. The opening section gives the impression of a domestic story about the aftermath of the son's abduction, its impact on the family and Claire's growing attachment to the farm.

However, the next section of 200-plus pages veers off in an entirely different direction, overwhelming us with details of Claire's six-month cancer treatment and her increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Minna.

Throughout this section, readers' attention may lag as a result of the bizarre plot developments and inexplicable character shifts in the portrayal of the two women -- Claire's passivity and Minna's callousness.

Part 3 recounts Minna's back story at lightning speed -- an 83-page summary of her life from childhood to adulthood, a lot for readers to absorb.

Part 4 ties up the loose threads of the farfetched story.

The Forgetting Tree is neither a page-turner nor a quick read. Sadly, it does not bear out the promise of Soli's earlier novel.

 

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J8

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Updated on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 12:31 PM CDT: adds fact box

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