Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Orchardist - Amanda Coplin

'He had one of those complicated faces that one had to consider at length to understand how emotion lay on it, to understand it at all.'

The setting is north-west America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and William Talmadge, known just as Talmadge, works alone on his remote orchard, having established it with, and then inherited it from, his mother when she passed away. His father had earlier died in a mining accident. Talmadge is ‘a gentle, unassuming orchardist from the mountains’, and his is a peaceful, gentle and fairly solitary life, just occasional visitors like Clee the native American wrangler, and a friend in the town, the midwife and herbalist Caroline Middey, but one day this all changes when two young pregnant girls are seen in the town, stealing his fruit when he is at the market, and then he finds them hiding on his land. He is a kind man, and wants to help them and shield them, realising they are rather wild, in trouble and have been treated harshly in their lives thus far. His sister Elsbeth disappeared some years before and he still feels her absence deeply; 'Talmadge was stuck in grief he only partially acknowledged...the festering issue was Elsbeth's disappearance, which his mind could not accept, could not swallow; and so he suffered always and abstractedly...'

The two girls, Jane and Della, have evidently been ill-treated in their life prior to meeting Talmadge; the men they had been with 'had taught them both that you could read nothing definitive in a man's face, even if he appeared kind. Kind could turn on its head instantly; could throttle you, or hit you across the face with the back of a hand.'

Talmadge’s life is never really quite the same again once he has let the girls into it. With them comes trouble, but also a fatherly affection and concern that drives him to new lengths; before his trees and the produce was all that he nurtured. For him there is the contrast of ‘the happiness of company, the anxiety of interrupted solitude.’

I admit that when I started reading this novel, I was interested but not initially gripped. It is written in a very particular style, with an omniscient narrator recounting the story. The writing is gentle and suits the pace and tone of the story. Once I was beyond about 150 pages though, I found I was really involved with the tale and there was no question that I would put it down then; it grew into an absorbing story and the characters wove their way into my thoughts and touched my heart. Though it is a quiet book in many ways, it contains some shocking, painful and dramatic events. The story spans many years and becomes rather epic in scale.

This is a moving, thoughtful and rather haunting novel. Amanda Coplin tackles some fundamental themes about life in this book, about humans and our purpose. At one stage Della, one of the girls, now older, asks herself ‘Why are we born?...What does it mean to be born? To die?’

Through the story the author comments on the intrusion of the modern world, observing the changes in travel and work, from the wagon to the train and from small to large-scale distribution of the fruit, which seems strange to Talmadge and which he tries to resist.

I’m not sure if my words have done this book justice or conveyed well enough how I felt about it. I will just finish by saying I deeply admired the storytelling, the nuances and the observations on the fragility of life, the details of the landscape and the orchard, and the attempted, well-intentioned heroics of one man who can’t save everyone. I grew more and more entranced by the tale as it went on, and looking back I am very glad to have read it. 

Published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson


  1. It's probably not going to come as a surprise when I say that I have this on my TBR mountain. Margaret James recommended it very highly last year and it's good to read that you also enjoyed it, even if it was a slow burner.

  2. Loving the cover, simple but quite stunning, however I'm not sure this is a read for me. Great review though, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. This sounds really interesting. And I can never resist a novel described as 'haunting'!

  4. Yep, a great review of a book that I imagine is quite difficult to sum up. The cover is intriguing too!

  5. Beautiful review, Lindsay! I was so looking forward to reading your review of this book :) I love quiet contemplative novels and I am glad that part of this book is like that. The two new girls who come into Talmadge's life and turn it upside down, sound like fascinating characters. It makes me think of some of the stories by Patrick Suskind in which the main character leads a quiet, peaceful solitary life when suddenly something happens and turns his life upside down. I will add this book to my TBR list and I will look forward to reading it soon. Thanks for this wonderful review.

  6. I read this book, too, but had a different take on it.

    THE ORCHARDIST is a lovely book, and many people rave about it. So you might not want to pay attention to my criticism. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong. But I have two problems with this book.

    First, the author, Amanda Coplin, never lets her readers know any character. She glosses over everything.

    Second, Coplin uses too many sentence fragments, and she doesn't use quotation marks. This is a device, I'm sure, but for what, I'm not sure. I only know that the result for the reader is choppy sentences that are difficult to read. Over and over, I had to reread paragraphs because I had to figure out when someone was talking and when they quit talking.

    There was a good reason things like punctuation and quotation marks words were invented. If a writer cares about her readers, she uses them. If she says the heck with you and doesn't, that's inconsiderate


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