Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Karen Viggers' The orchardist’s daughter

Karen Viggers is a local author, but one we hadn't read before. We were thrilled when she accepted our invitation to attend our meeting, but unfortunately, she had to cancel at late notice due to a serious health problem in her family. Of course we understood. Families, after all, must come before reading groups - but it was too late to reschedule the book to another month, so we soldiered on ... (We were pleased to hear at the meeting that her family member was on the recovery path, after quite a touch and go situation.)

Fortunately, our host had worked professionally with Karen in the publishing industry, and so was able to provide us with some insights into her career and writing life. The orchardist's daughter is Viggers' fourth novel, her others being The stranding (2008), The grass castle (2011) and The lightkeeper's wife (2014). Her novels are bestsellers in France, so much so that one commentator has suggested that she would be responsible for a surge in French tourism to Australia!

Viggers is published by the successful Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin. Viggers trained as a vet, and is specially skilled in wildlife management. Her husband is an ecologist. While we would not normally consider a husband's work important while discussing a woman writer (!), in this case it's relevant because of Viggers' focus on landscape and environnmental issues. It's clear that she and her husband, to whom the book is dedicated, are deeply knowledgeable in and passionate about these subjects.

Viggers, said our host, works hard on her books, writing draft after draft to get her stories right. We discussed the problematic jacketing of her novels, which places them squarely in the commercial fiction/genre side of publishing. Most of us see Viggers as straddling the commercial/literary fiction line, and felt that the jacketing doesn't encourage a wider readership for her. Titles using "wife" and "daughter" also tend to suggest more commercial fiction.

Before we started our discussion proper, another member told us that in interviews she'd heard, Viggers had said the gorgeous character of Geraldine in The orchardist's daughter was inspired by our host! Appropriate and well-deserved we all thought!

First impressions

As is our practice, but rather later in the meeting than usual, we did our first impressions run around the group!

  • Everyone agreed that the novel was readable, engaging, compelling, un-put-down-able -different members using different words to say the same thing!
  • Most commented on the wonderful sense of place Viggers evokes in the book. She takes you right there, said one member, while our twitcher commented that it's clear that Viggers knows her way around the bush!
  • A couple commented on the cleverness of opening the book with a fire and the burning of a house, with one commenting that from then on she kept trying to anticipate what dramas might happen. She was relieved that the book ended reasonably well!
  • One member felt that Viggers paints a bleak picture of life in Tasmanian villages, though others argued that Viggers intended it to be small towns in general, rather than Tasmanian ones in particular. 
  • Several commented that the issues raised in the novel were compelling - including the Tasmanian devil facial cancer, the forestry/timbertown/environmental politics, the different types of violence/bullying/abuse.
  • Most felt the characters, overall, could be deeper or more complex, that they can be a little one-sided or dichotomous, but all agreed that, despite this, the characters are engaging, and compel us to read on.
  • One member - and not a doggie one at that! - said her favourite character was Rosie the dog. Rosie, she argued, epitomises what the book is about.   
  • A couple of members commented on Leon, and the fact that he'd been a major inspiration for the book. One member would have asked Viggers, had she been present, about "how that works", that is, "how does a fictional character get in your head to the extent that they insist being written about!" One member felt that the book was more about Leon, than Miki (the titular "orchardist's daughter") . 
  • One suggested that the chase at the end was too long, though we all thought it was very well written - and that it would be great in a movie.
  • Several commented on the writing, and how beautifully it flows. We liked its mix of short sentences, long sentences, and half-sentences. As one member said, it's not stilted.
From here the discussion became a bit of a free-for-all with not a lot of direction. It's that sort of book - or, maybe, it was that sort of night! Mostly though, it's that sort of book, because it offers so many different things to talk about.

One member shared one of the two epigraphs, which she liked:

Only the unnamed forest
is home to that silence which
is union with the divine. And only
the forest creatures grasp that
being in the single moment is all.
(Jane Baker, 'Church', Unpublished)

And another shared a piece of writing from the book which she felt exemplified our comments on Viggers' style:

Miki loved the trees and the birds, but what she loved most couldn’t be seen. The way she felt in the forest. The scent of the bush after the rain. The sound of bark crackling. Branches squeaking. The feeling of patience and agelessness, growth and renewal. The aura of trees. The sense of connectedness. Of everything having its place. She could stay here all day, breathing with the tree, drawing its life into her lungs.

So, what else did we talk about? We talked more about the characters. We liked the relationship between Leon and Max - and we liked seeing the world through Max's naive eyes. We also liked the way Max's Mum was cautious about Leon at first but warmed to him through his kindness to her son. We thought Miki was pretty spunky, given how controlled she was by her brother. We liked her treatment of the shop's customers and felt she made that shop the success it was. We loved her interactions with Geraldine. One member loved the idea of discussions about books happening within a book, though another, who hates Thomas Hardy, wasn't so keen on Geraldine's choice of books! Another member was surprised that Leon stuck with the football team, but we countered, he loved football (and knew he could bring them around!)

More seriously, we noted that the book represents a political commentary on contemporary Australia, ticking quite a few boxes regarding current issues, particularly environment, violence and power. We liked that Viggers touches on mechanisation, and how this, more than the environment issue, is likely to be the greatest cause of job loss in the timber industry. We noted and loved the inclusion of Bob Brown!

One member quoted Miki's realisation at the end:

That was life, wasn't it? Tears and then laughter. Knocks and recovery. Injury and healing. Loneliness and then friends.

Finally, we talked a little about the four parts of the novel: Seeds, Germination, Growth, Understory. Do these have a metaphoric meaning as well as literal one, and if so do they refer to Leon, or the town, or to Miki? What does Understory, in particular, mean? Understory, we thought, can describe the network that grows beneath a forest and supports what's above. Could it relate to the support network that has developed in the town for, say, Miki?

All in all, a lively, engaged meeting about an engaging book ...

 Present: 10 members