Forbidden fruit

The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£12.99, 448 pages

There are conventions in novels, even literary ones. If a person is lost, the reader expects they will be found, or their fate at least revealed. If a character is mute, they will speak eventually, usually at a point of crisis, and their words will be profound. But what if an author is not interested in conventions?

In her debut, Amanda Coplin sets up such scenarios and then subverts them in a manner that is wholly realistic and also, like life, a little disappointing. The novel is hedged around with mysteries, imprecision and the unspoken.

The orchardist of the title is Talmadge, a man of indeterminate age (though we are informed that he was nine in 1857). The setting is the American northwest; from Oregon, Talmadge, his mother and sister “travelled north and then west, west and then north ... the Cascades rose before them like gods”. Later, Talmadge travels to the nearby town and notes that the motor cars are starting to outnumber horse-drawn buggies, so it’s the early 20th century. The main action spans about a decade and a half.

Talmadge’s sister Elsbeth, a year younger than he, disappeared in her mid-teens. There are tantalising clues – a fragment of her bonnet was found in the forest, she had shown signs of dissatisfaction with rural life – but her vanishing mainly serves to set up the slow-burning drama that follows. Talmadge is drawn to two destitute, underage, pregnant sisters who steal his fruit and treat him with disdain, even when he protects them. The Orchardist follows his obsession with the younger one, Della, and Angelene, child of the elder sister, Jane.

How the girls have come to be in such a plight is another mystery; it involves Michaelson, a shape-shifting fellow who hovers on the edge of the narrative. He’s an unusual villain, with a soft and halting demeanour and shadowy proclivities. He makes terrible things happen without himself seeming terrible; he is one of the most powerful creations in the novel.

Instead of fully revealing the nature of Della and Jane’s ordeal at the hands of Michaelson and his friends (or are they customers?) Coplin indicates its horror through the psychological effects on the girls, neither of whom seem able to trust anyone ever again.

Life at Talmadge’s remote fruit farm is enlivened every summer by the arrival of native American horse-traders, among them Clee, who befriended Elsbeth (and finds her bonnet). Coplin’s decision to render Clee mute might stem from a desire not to put words in his mouth, but the effect is to make him both more of a strong, silent stereotype and also more Other, appearing mysteriously from the forests.

Another solitary character, Caroline Middey, is the focus when the action switches to the local town. The midwife who tends the girls, she is utterly unsentimental and realistic about their emotional capacity. The vacuum at the centre of Caroline’s life may be explained by the photograph of the native girl she keeps in her home but, again, the nature of the relationship is never explained; there’s even a hint that something more than just friendship binds Talmadge to Caroline.

Like the other characters, Caroline is not garrulous. The effect of this can feel a bit like watching a film that would be shorter if everyone simply got together and explained what was on their minds. On a couple of occasions, when asked a question, characters simply lean forwards and spit.

The story runs alongside the cycles of blossom and fruit, youth and maturity. Surprisingly, there are few details of the minutiae of fruit-growing, and the landscape is barely evoked. When Coplin rhapsodises – “The sun on the porous bank near where she stood was lit up, incandescent, the minerals glittering and the dull mud peculiar and particular even in its dullness. Each pore and streak and detail was washed and brought forth as is a person’s face by the light” – it’s to deliver a shock in the very next line.

Coplin may keep the reader guessing through an unwillingness to fall into narrative cliché, but she also seems to avoid much dramatic tension. Characters die or vanish when there’s so much more we want to learn about them.

But that, too, is realistic. The Orchardist is a powerful, finely crafted novel.

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