The Family Orchard
by Nomi Eve
Published by Knopf
352 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson
The Family Orchard is a startlingly different novel in the family saga tradition. Eve follows the roots of her own family in a fictional work that hugs the border between memoir and novel.
The narrative is scattered with small sections of additional points of view; Eve writes from her own perspective, her father's perspective and the perspective of the specific relative. She manages to include multiple details on the character's lives; she can give information via her father that she might not have known and so on. In this way, the characters and their stories become full and tangible. The reader feels, by the end of each chapter, that they have met these people and been invested in their lives. This tactic makes for a very satisfying read.
Eve begins her novel in 1837 with the meeting and subsequent marriage of Esther and Yochanan; Eve delves into the mind of Esther during her tempestuous affair with the local baker. Through episodic chapters, we are introduced to six generations of this family. We see the progression of their lives and the legacies (recipes, myths, fears and physical resemblances) that they leave behind.
For the first half of the novel, Eve deftly and swiftly creates memorable characters; she utilizes clean prose to move through the complex lives of her characters. It is only once Eve reaches moderate present day that her style falters. Her brisk prose falls into something more languid; her characters stretch for longer chapters, often reappearing, and the tone turns more sentimental. Some lovely moments, such as a young boy's belief that he can summon a golem (mythical monster) by drawing one on the dirt of the orchard, are lost in this heavy narrative.
Elizer apologized to the mango tree, and then he thanked the ground for trying its best, and then he left the orchard, walking very slowly back past the lemons, up the back porch steps and into the kitchen where his mother berated him for having such dirty hands. That night, he decided he had to do something regarding his technique. Obviously, golems weren't for amateurs to conjure. He had heard that to make a golem, one had to know the correct arrangement of the mysterious letters of one of God's more mysterious names. He wasn't in the habit of calling on God personally, let alone contemplating the mysteries of the divine name. He had thought, with naïve enthusiasm, that his humming was some kind of approximation of God's name, or if not an approximation then an endearment, or a nickname perhaps. But obviously he had been wrong. He had been trying for months now, and it never worked. For several minutes he wondered whether golems hated mangoes, and if maybe he should try the ground by another tree, a sweet orange perhaps, or maybe one of the lemons. Maybe golems liked sour fruit? But then he decided if golems hated mangoes they weren't worth conjuring and so he would stick to his original plan.
The one constant throughout the novel, as the title suggests, is the orchard. Each character feels a deep connection to the vast orchard in Jerusalem. They, in turn, find stone mosaics, precious fruits, lovers and ghosts between the mandarin trees, lemon trees and the mango trees. Some live on the land there while others make journeys to visit. The orchard creates a strongly visual throughline in a book full of lush imagery and poetic language. The reader can almost smell ripe oranges emanating from the book.
As we near the end of the novel, Eve's own personal inclusions and those of her father become longer and more integral to the novel. We are pulled less into the lives of the characters and more into Eve's and her father's observations on them. In this way, the reader is distanced from a narrative that was previously so engaging. Eve becomes overly preoccupied with the impact her family (distant or immediate) has upon her own life. This theme, unintroduced throughout the previous chapters, becomes the driving force in the conclusion. This stylistic choice falls short of the reader's expectation for the novel; Eve has created a vast, lush cast which she abandons in the denouement.
We embrace by the old mango tree. I wonder, Jeremy, what part of our lives is the fiction today -- the part that we will either simply forget or refuse to remember? Will it be my arms that reach up to climb behind your neck, your shoulders? Or will it be your eyes that survey the sky now catching a glimpse of a very large bird heading over the orchard and toward the water? I wonder, what part of our lives is the fiction today? What part will our children, and our children's children have to make up when trying to know who we were and who we weren't? Will they have to make up the way you are looking at me now? Your head slightly tilted down to the right, your eyes flirty and piercing, your soft lips upturned and parted. Will they have to make up the way you are -- pressing your lips into the top of my head, kissing me in code? Will they have to make up our stance, our story, our passion, our bodies planted in this place, embracing in the early evening wind. Will they have to make up the stories we are standing on? I dig my toes into the ground. The stories buried beneath our feet? Or will they have to weave nets to catch the ones floating around our heads, the stories that tell our souls, our souls riding the clouds, swooping towards the horizon like doves unencumbered? I wonder.
The Family Orchard is a wonderful first novel by an obviously talented writer. While the narrative does get away from Eve at times, accompanying her on the journey is well worth the effort. | November 2000
Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.