Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
The Ravenala is a palm tree found in Madagascar, whose fanning branches point east and west, so it is also called the “travelers’ tree.” It serves as a metaphor for the novel, especially its main character, Vivian, who seeks direction and freedom as a Peace Corps Volunteer in her early sixties.
The Malagasy people who are her English students, and those who work for her domestically teach her lessons in humility, goodness and courage. When her gas stove blows up in the face of Merlah, her warrior guard, she takes care of him, treating his burns, and realizes how deeply she cares about him, his family and the brave island people.
Vivian walks past prisoners of a crumbling fort who are free to go have lunch with their relatives and who return to their prison “on the honor system.” She would wave to them “. . . and they waved back happily, though nothing was said.”
Brooks describes life in Madagascar like a painter with a word brush —
As if at any moment they might cascade to earth, thick clusters of stars hung in the night skies like frozen fireworks.
. . .
A handsome tropical bird with a silver tapering tail twice the length of its body sailed upward as if it were a painter about to make brush strokes on the bright blue canvas.
Vivian becomes involved with Con Bennett, a British economist for the United Nations, who is much younger than she, causing her to feel conflicted about her age. In Madagascar “She felt more and more each day that suddenly, inexplicably, she was young again….. Perhaps, Vivvie thought, it’s only the air. … The air had made her young, light on her feet.” She does not trust Con, in the same way she does not trust herself. He threatens her emotional control. Nor does she trust her role in Africa. “Isn’t this the test of Africa, to see if one can maintain one’s integrity in a place where integrity is of so little value.” This is before she learns that integrity is everything in African society.
Only part of Brooks’ story takes place in Madagascar. The major part deals with Vivian’s family in New England: a neurotic, self-absorbed mother and three sisters who do their best to avoid the matriarch’s manipulations and quell the guilt she instills in them. The sisters are like the ravenala, grown from the same root into a fan of their individual lives. They are artistic women; Jane a teacher/playwright, Audrey a poet who transcends ugly realities of her life with a less than satisfying husband into introspective verse. Laurel’s raison d’etre seems to be her irresistible sexual allure. Laurel’s most poignant regret as she lies on her death bed is that she is no longer attractive to the doctor. When Laurel is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, her sisters avoid her.
The three sat over the remains of their beautiful dinner, thinking their private thoughts. In the case of the sisters they had not considered any of them dying except fleetingly as one thinks of a book one must read if only one could find time. Now the time had come for them to think for as long as they could bear to about Laurel’s mortality.
When she receives the news of her sister’s impending death, Vivian is loathe to return to her family She resists giving up the liberation that she has found in Madagascar. When Con Bennett offers to accompany her, Vivian fears that he might discover who she really is — not the fearless woman who would take a Malagasy boy’s foot in her hands and pierce it to release a deadly burrowing insect, but the offspring of a sycophantic mother and jealous sisters who live in houses with chintz curtains and cultivated table manners. Vivian is sure that Con will not fit into such a setting.
Sisters think they have a right to everything the other has! They steal each other’s men and each other’s work, their art, their very thoughts! But then they stick together and shut you out.
Con insists, however, and Vivian relents, in spite of her misgivings. To Vivian’s sisters he is a figure of global glamour and strength, an alien being to the mother, lusted after by Audrey, but appreciated by her somewhat demented husband.
All returning Peace Corps Volunteers would appreciate Vivian and Con’s reaction to shopping in an American grocery store,
. . . finding themselves confronted by a vast wall entirely filled with shelves of bread . . .
When he turned to Vivvie, she had moved before a five foot pyramid of tinned peaches. She was trembling.
Take me out of here, Con. I feel faint.
While the dynamics of this New England family’s life are intriguing, I really savored the chapters about Madagascar. I learned things about that exotic island, just as I did from an RPCV from Madagascar who had been assigned to care for lemurs, the wide-eyed creatures indigenous to the island. After her service she became the Director of Research and Operation for the Lemur Conservation Foundation of Florida. This is the sort of path that often opens to Peace Corps Volunteers.
Vivian lives in an outpost, Fort Dauphin, and keeps to herself, though several young volunteers visit her, and she observes them, critically whenever they kick back with abandon at Peace Corps gatherings. Younger volunteers might resent her reference to them as “kids.” Having hosted and mentored many young volunteers in Senegal at Brooks’ age, I never thought of them as “kids,” but as young people struggling to find a path through a daunting, hopefully rewarding new culture.
Brooks is a talented writer. She “sees” things, especially the elusive details of nature. Unfortunately, she sometimes interrupts her narrative flow with gratuitous digressions on philosophical topics like romanticism, theories of acting and theater, declining values in American education and art. These detours interrupt the flow of the novel’s unfolding story. Other authors do this, too, e.g., Doris Lessing, a master of essays through dialogues, and I feel nonetheless stymied by such asides.
Con slowly leads Vivian into a “loveship” that is open and true, finally overcoming her doubts, and convincing her that she does not have to ask him to “forgive her for growing old.” Vivian also learns that committing to a person does not mean giving up her precious freedom. After Laurel dies, and then the mother, Vivian and Con return to Madagascar together.
“. . . but it wasn’t the end. There was much to learn.”
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and In the Valley of Atibon, a memoir of Haiti. Leita is also Coordinator of the UN Women Gulf Coast Book Club.