The Banyan Tree

Christopher Nolan, Author Arcade Publishing $25.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-55970-511-0
Occasionally a book comes along that is so innocent and seemingly unmindful of current literary fashion that, paradoxically, it shocks--Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, Proulx's Shipping News, McCourts's Anglela's Ashes are works that surprised and delighted unsuspecting readers. So will this extraordinary first novel by Irishman Nolan, who, at 33 years of age, has spent his entire life as a quadraplegic, unable to speak. You wouldn't know it from his perfectly crafted, exquisitely written story, telling the life of Minnie (n e Humphries) O'Brien, born and bred in Westmeath, a rural area west of Dublin. One of the extraordinary aspects of The Banyan Tree is its very ordinariness: the only daughter of a shopkeeper, Minnie marries Peter, a farmer; they tend to livestock, churn their own butter, eat their own eggs and raise three children. The langourous narrative takes the reader from the courtship of Minnie's mother by her father at a country fair in the first years of the 20th century all the way to Greenwich Village in the late `80s, and then back to Drumhollow, where Minnie passes away in her little stone house at the end of a long rutted road. The drama, such as it is, unfolds with such naturalness--and without any of the contrived urgencies of plotting--that the reader is transported to a time and place of irresistible charm. Also extraordinary is this book's language. Nolan's lyrical flights, highly evidenced in his Whitbread-winning memoir, Under the Eye of the Clock, published when he was 21, fly even higher here, a mix of the unabstract poetries of Beckett and the soundscapes of James Joyce. This result is a sensorium of light and noise, with prose rhythms hewing to the rhythms of work and revery, everything spiced with local idioms and fokloric fancy, bringing all things in the surround into animate life: stone houses ""gather"" themselves, the sun hides; cars ""agitate the avenue away"" as lawns ""guffaw"" on either side; chestnut trees growl, ""adept at their waiting gaze."" Despite this intensity, the biography of a family calmly emerges, and readers will be totally absorbed in Minnie's effort to survive her loneliness in the aftermath of her husband's sudden death and her childrens' moves away from their village. With her eldest son a conflicted, besotted Catholic priest in New York, her daughter trapped in a loveless marriage in Dublin and her favored youngest sowing his wild oats in Australia, Minnie holds out, expecting, despite appearances, that the family will reunite and preserve the farm. Nolan, for all the Celtic emoting he accommodates here, remains clear-eyed; and there are no pat solutions or tidy conclusions to this tale that stays true to life while at the same time redeeming it through a love of language and a belief in its ability to forge lasting ties among people and things. 100,000 first printing. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 02/28/2000
Release date: 03/01/2000
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