The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli isn’t my normal reading fare – tragedy, death of a child, cancer – I mean, UGH, how joyless. These subjects have the makings of a book I usually wouldn’t even consider reading. But something made me take a second look. Perhaps it was the setting – a California citrus farm – coupled with the fact that I’d meant to read Soli’s other novel – The Lotus Eaters – for quite a while. Whatever the case, I’m happy I had the opportunity to read this strange, melancholy tale.
The story opens with the events surrounding the death of Claire’s eleven-year-old son, juxtaposed against her birthday party only the day before, during which everything in her family’s life seemed to be falling into place, finally. Such contentment never lasting long, the family is shattered after Josh’s senseless killing, and Claire’s marriage ultimately cannot weather the grief, though they’ll always remain connected by the pain they shared:
How to explain that after twenty or more years, a marriage, if it had ever been real, could no longer by sundered by a piece of paper. In two decades–the same time it took to raise a human being–a marriage became its own entity. Life intervened, yes, a decision was made that life together was too painful, but the marriage itself lived on, a kind of radiological half-life.
We rejoin the family many years later, just as Claire is diagnosed with breast cancer, and her family has moved on, moved away, only Claire remains doggedly attached to the citrus farm. Neither of her daughters is willing to move back to the ranch to care for Claire, nor is Claire willing to leave the ranch. And so a caretaker must be hired. Enter: Minna, a gorgeous, mysterious force from the Caribbean, a spinner of fanciful tales that all seem willfully to believe against their better judgment. After all the family had been through, Claire preferred the comfort of a stranger:
It was impossible to be in [her family’s] presence–the undertow of the past was too strong, a constant replaying of some infatuation, some slight. Only with strangers, new acquaintances, could one gage who one was in the present, try on whom one might become.
Minna proves to be both lovable and despicable, showing great warmth and insight mixed with manipulative spitefulness. Only later do we get Minna’s backstory, which, though certainly horrific, only partially explains her less noble behaviors and her attachment to the mystery man on other end of her late-night phone calls.
The Forgetting Tree is an imaginative and unique take on the reconstructing of ourselves that must occur after tragedy, belated or not. Claire’s blind acceptance of Minna’s obvious nonsense could become irritating at times, but irritating the way a parent’s insistence on giving his or her child a 173rd chance is irritating. But both Claire and Minna manage to rebuild themselves inside-out as they only could in the presence of an outsider, a compassionate stranger.