“I think we become desensitized to almost everything in life, especially those things that are part of our routine, that we encounter daily. The only way to shake ourselves awake and experience novelty in the everyday is to engage consistently with an art form. Art makes us see the world – right down to our smallest, most intimate experiences – with new eyes.”
So responds the author in the question and answer section at the back of this powerful and evocative first novel, one of my top choices for this year; and I’m sure it will remain there. Set, for the most part, at the turn of the twentieth century in the fertile valleys of the Pacific North-west, it centres on the life of William Talmadge. He is the orchardist of the title, arriving in the valley with his mother and sister in the late 1850’s; we follow his life as he plants and nurtures his fruit orchards of apples and apricots and establishes a home. At first, after the death of their mother, it’s just him and his sister, but one day while out gathering herbs in the forest she disappears and so, at seventeen, he is left alone, his only companionship gleaned from the native American horse-breakers, and specifically the elective mute, Clee (also bereft of family), and Caroline Middey, the healer and midwife from the nearby small town where he goes periodically to sell his fruit.
And so Talmadge (for this is how we know him by now) is, for the most part content tending his trees and expanding his acreage to include the forest and other uncultivated sections of this beautiful landscape, in some respects keeping it for and in memory of his lost sister, nurturing it in the way he is no longer able to nurture her. Until, one day two very pregnant, very young teenage girls, hungry and almost feral, arrive and begin to steal his fruit. From here on Talmadge’s life is changed and disturbed. With the girls comes violence, fear, loss and ultimately a kind of revenge; but what also comes is love and a deepening and most moving warmth between the principal characters. One that draws the reader in as surely as the landscape does, leaving a haunting and uplifting vision of the place and its inhabitants and where the stars are “so thick you could walk right into them...”
It is, overall, a story of nurturing and great humanity – and I loved it.
The Orchardist is published by Orion.