The orchardist’s daughter is local author Karen Viggers’ fourth novel, but the first that I’ve read. She has, however, appeared on my blog before, being the person who conversed with Sofie Laguna about her novel, The choke. It was one of the most entertaining conversations I’ve ever attended.
Now, if you haven’t read or heard of Karen Viggers before, there are some facts worth knowing about her. Firstly, she’s a vet with special training in native wildlife health – and this background informs most if not all of her novels, I believe. It certainly informs The orchardist’s daughter. Another significant fact is that she’s a best-selling author in France! How wonderful that a novelist who writes strongly Australia-centric books does so well in France! Her previous novel, The lightkeeper’s wife, was, in fact, awarded the Les Petits Mots de Libraires literary prize.
So, an interesting author, and The orchardist’s daughter is an interesting, enjoyable book. It is set in a small logging town in Tasmania, and has quite a formal structure, starting with a Prologue, followed by four parts – Seeds, Germination, Growth, Understorey – and ending with an Epilogue. It is told third person through the perspective of three characters – Miki, the titular orchardist’s daughter who is 17 years old for most of the novel; Leon, a Park Ranger, who is 25 years old at the novel’s start; and Max, a 10-year-old boy who is Leon’s neighbour. Miki and Leon are relative newcomers to the town, Miki arriving with her older brother Kurt to run the town’s takeaway shop after they lose their home, farm and parents in a fire, and Leon moving from his Ranger job on Bruny Island to the mainland. All three are outsiders and serve to illuminate the tensions existing in the town.
Around these characters is a community comprising mainly logging families, Max’s being one of them. However, there are others who round out the town a little, including policeman Fergus and his sons, Geraldine who runs the information centre, and vet Kate. The narrative develops around a couple of situations. One is a mystery surrounding Miki’s brother Kurt. What does he do by himself in the forest when he insists that Miki wait in the ute, and what does he do during his weekly solo trips to Hobart (during which he locks Miki inside their shop/home)? The other concerns logging, and the dangerous unrest that develops when a temporary ban is placed on logging around a certain ancient tree. Jobs are at risk, the loggers believe, and the butt of their anger is of course Parkie Leon. From these two situations, Viggers builds tension slowly but inexorably, with the Kurt-and-Miki story becoming the prime focus, of course, given the book’s title.
So, there is a strong plot to the novel, but this plot, while driving us on to read, is there to serve some issues that Viggers wants to explore. These concern logging and the environment, bullying and domestic violence, not to mention more personal ones like freedom. These are big issues, and not only is Viggers clearly passionate about them, but her writing about them feels authentic. The characters may be a little less complex than, say, those in Lucashenko’s Too much lip, but they are believable. Logger and vicious bully Mooney is offset against Robbo, who is equally single-minded about logging but seeks more peaceful, law-abiding means of protest. Similarly, Max’s father Shane, another logger who is violent, is offset against colleague Tobey who has a tender, caring relationship with his wife. All of this is observed by Miki from her shop-counter – and she makes her own little attempts to lighten the lives of the bullied and the ostracised, by sneaking treats into their take-away bags. Through this little subversive action, we sense Miki’s inner strength and resourcefulness, something she takes to another level when she works out ways of escaping her “prison” while Kurt is away.
Freedom is one of the novel’s underlying drivers. Miki’s imprisonment is literal, but imprisonment takes many forms – the wives who are abused but feel incapable of escaping, and young Max who is bullied to behave in ways antithetical to his nature. Some of these are resolved, but Viggers recognises that there’s no magic wand for domestic abuse. The first step is moving from passive awareness (or acceptance, even) to taking action, and this starts to happen in the novel.
The book really stands out, however, in its writing about nature. A Booktopia interview with Viggers tells us that she grew up in the Dandenongs and has been to Antarctica. She has also spent time in Tasmania (and immersed herself in Tasmanian-set books, including two I’ve read, Anna Krien’s Into the woods, and Louis Nowra’s Into that forest). All of this has given her a sure feel for the wilderness, so much so that it’s difficult to choose an excerpt to share, but here’s one:
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.
These forest descriptions move into Tasmanian Gothic realms during the climactic chase. The experience is both “terrifying and surreal” for our character who crawls and runs through, burrows and squats in the forest, “slipping from the thicket and weaving though the trees, ducking under tree ferns, past the tipped-up end of a fallen tree whose buttressed roots made a wall he could hide behind.” It’s muddy and dangerous with sword grass that scratches you and bark mounds that can trip you up. Viggers knows this landscape – and how to make it terrifying.
In the end, The orchardist’s daughter is about community and compromise, and about the courage to break free. It straddles the boundary between commercial and literary fiction. It is accessible, it has a strong plot and easy-to-engage-with characters, and it is hopeful (not that literary fiction can’t be!!) But, it is also gritty in subject matter and doesn’t offer neat solutions to the important environmental and social issues it raises. I like that in my reading!
Theresa (Theresa Smith writes) also loved the novel.
Review copy courtesy the author, Karen Viggers.