448pp, hardback, £12.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Amanda Coplin’s debut novel is set in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest of America, and spans the period from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. At its heart is Talmadge, an ageing, solitary man lovingly tending his apple and apricot orchards in Washington State. His simple life is rudely interrupted by Jane and Della, two heavily pregnant teenage girls who steal fruit from his stall in the nearby village. When he fails to chase them they follow him home and a strange routine is established. He leaves food for them on his porch which they snatch up and take back to the orchard to eat. As the girls’ time comes near they begin to eat and sleep closer to Talmadge’s house, now reliant on his food and kindness. They go into labour together and Talmadge, together with his old friend Caroline Middey, delivers the babies. And so this strange little group cling together in a makeshift family unit, tending the orchards and living according to the seasons. But when some armed riders arrive in the valley tragedy strikes and all their lives take an unexpected turn.
Coplin has created a marvellous character in Talmadge, a man as strong and timeless as the land he tends. His face is scarred by smallpox but it is the scars he carries inside that make him so captivating. The early death of his mother and the perplexing loss of his beloved sister, Elsbeth, have left him craving human contact while at the same time guarding his solitude. All he has left are his precious trees and he tends them like the family he lost, or perhaps the family of his own that he never had.
The authorial voice is strong throughout the novel but this distance from the characters does not lessen their appeal. Occasionally Coplin draws near to one of the characters providing a little more insight and the feeling that at any moment their hearts will break open and all their secrets will be laid bare. Cleverly, she never lets this happen, pulling back just in time to retain their mystery and allure. Each character, whether small and large, is beautifully drawn and always distinctive; from the silent Clee, Talmadge’s Nez Perce childhood friend, to Caroline Middey, who has become like a surrogate sister to him. It is this attention to detail that makes Coplin’s debut so accomplished and enjoyable.
Della, uncomfortable in the company of fellow humans, is as wild in spirit as the horses she goes off to trap and train. She is a sad creature, too damaged by her past to live happily in a world where lone women are vulnerable. Talmadge sees his sister in her and a second chance to give her the love and security that he fears Elsbeth lacked. Angelene, Jane’s beautiful and clever daughter, becomes the pride and joy of his old age. However in trying to protect her from the past he unwittingly seems to seal Della’s fate.
The storytelling is languid; perhaps too languid at times, but the characters never fail to engage. There is a strong thread of melancholy running through the novel but it is the great sweep of the landscape that lingers and Talmadge, patiently tending his treasured trees as he watches the world change around him.