52 in 52: The Roving Tree, by Elsie Augustave


[This review is based on the paperback edition published by Akashic Books in 2013, and provided by the author’s Public Relations representative.]

Here’s the deal:
Iris Odys is a roving tree, just looking for the right place to put down her roots. A Haitian-born American citizen adopted by the well-to-do, white Winston family in the 1960s, Iris comes of age in an era where both racism and sexism are at fever pitch. Over the course of the novel, Iris learns about her family (including her absentee father, Brahami, and her mother, Hagathe, who allowed the Winstons to adopt Iris in order to protect her from a certainly-dangerous-but-otherwise-uncertain future in Haiti), as well as her childhood and her homeland. Hagathe’s passing draws her back to Haiti, where Iris rediscovers the love and memories she still carries from her home. A dance career eventually brings her to Zaire, where she falls in love with a married politician named Bolingo and becomes pregnant. Will her unborn child suffer a fate similar to her own?

My thoughts:
I cannot begin to describe how deeply moved I was by The Roving Tree… By the time I finished reading chapter one, I knew I was in for an incredible reading experience, and Elsie Augustave didn’t fail me in the slightest. I’ve never been to Haiti, but Ms. Augustave’s writing left me feeling as though I was walking the sugarcane fields in Monn Neg and witnessing vaudou rituals with my own eyes. I felt Iris’ pain as she dealt with a classmate who told her to “go back to Africa!” I wanted to take part in the big dance production Iris put together. I related to Bolingo’s fear as he learned that Iris had lost too much blood and would need a transfusion while in labor (and at the start of the AIDS epidemic, to boot). Most of all, though, I empathized with her newborn daughter, Zati, as Iris passed away, leaving Zati to grow up motherless. I was left feeling an overwhelming mix of every emotion available to me: anger for the injustice of Iris’ passing; sadness for the motherless Zati; joy that Iris would be reunited with Hagathe; admiration for the half-sister, Pepe, that Iris wished to raise Zati in her place; and sympathy for Bolingo at the loss of the woman he loved. Or as my YA friends might call it, “all the feels!”

For me, the greatest part of the story was the manner in which it was told — the entire novel is told in flashback! Iris’ death is the catalyst for the entire plot; her final wish is for Zati to know her life story, and she is told by God (or Granmet, in Haitian) to write the story immediately after entering Heaven. Above the waterfall and flowery field in which a writing desk and chair sit, Iris hears the voice of Granmet:

“Write the first word and the Holy Spirit will inspire you along the way. One more thing: Should you feel the need to know about someone close to you, just look into the water. You will see and hear that person.” (Augustave 11)

From there, the story itself — Iris’ life story — unfolds in great detail. Perhaps most impressive, however, were the flashbacks-within-flashbacks telling the stories of other characters in her life: her conception, told from both Hagathe’s and Brahami’s points of view; her initial meeting with her adoptive parents, which we get from her adoptive mother, Margaret’s, perspective; the story of Brahami’s deception and subsequent conception and birth of Iris’ half-sister Esperanza (or Pepe, for short), seen through the eyes of Darah, Brahami’s wife. It is simply incredible how all of these stories entwine with the life of Iris herself to weave an immensely detailed, emotional, and complicated tapestry of life. For the first time in my life, I was grateful for getting sick shortly after I cracked The Roving Tree open for the first time, simply because it afforded me the opportunity to completely immerse myself in this beautiful book and read it cover-to-cover while The Hubby took care of Joshua.

So would I recommend this book?
The Roving Tree definitely isn’t a cotton-candy-fluff novel that you’ll find on anyone’s “Best Beach Books” list. It’s much bigger and heavier than that, and it’s completely worth a read. Simply stated, it’s a blessing. It’s a gift from God, as is its author, and I truly hope you’ll check it out!

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