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Syringa Tree (Review)

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The Syringa Tree
Pamela Gien, 2006
254 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
December 2008

Sometimes you fall in love—when you least expect it, and that's what happened from the first pages of this wonderful book.

Imaginative, independent Elizabeth is six years old, growing up with her white family in South Africa, during the final 25 years of apartheid. She is surrounded by loving parents and a houseful of black servants, who dote on her and with whom she's deeply bonded, especially her nanny, Salamina. It is through Lizzy's young eyes that we gradually see the brutality of that country's racist system.

Lizzy hangs out, literally, in the thick, lush branches of the family's giant Syringa tree (related to the lilac) where she summons hundreds of friendly spirits for protection (a reminder of the symbolic wych elm in Howard's End). Gradually, the tree comes to offer shelter for the growing number of black activists who oppose apartheid. Money is exchanged, fugitives hidden, bon fires lighted, songs sung, and drums beaten, all under Lizzy's watchful, inquisitive gaze.

This is a beautifully written work—which first saw light of day as a well-regarded stage play in London and New York, before becaming a novel. Gien writes in a sure and lyrical style, capturing the rhythms of tribal speech and song, as well as the majestic beauty of the velds. My only carp is that all Afrikaans (whites of Dutch descent) are reduced to cartoonish boobs, a little over simplistic. But that's minor compared with the sheer joy with which I devoured Gien's story.

Gorgeous! Read this.

See our The Syringa Tree Reading Guide.

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