It seems good things come in two's. It was only a few weeks back that I watched the wonderful German film Nowhere In Africa based on a book by Stephanie Zweig . It was autobiographical. And now this gem of a book also happen to be based in Africa. It is fictional but since Pamela Gien was raised in South Africa it has autobiographical elements strewn throughout. This is one of the best books/ new finds that I have had recently. The language is elegant and captivating. I ransacked my brains to give an example of an equivalent style and it dawned on me that finally I have found someone who writes like the cherished Malayalam writer Lalithambika Antharjanam. The Syringa Tree started out as a play starring Gien which she converted later into a full fledged novel.
Every line is a treat. Allow me to quote, "In the fleeting African spring, over before you can say Jack Robinson, rude August days of 1964 had already burned away the the first blossoms. Giving all things new and delicate no moment to shine. The syringa buds that survived this sudden heat burst in seconds into full clusters of shooting lilac stars, hanging heavy and fragrant too soon. In the blink of an eye, it was summer again. My mother hoped this would bring rain in fantastic thunderstorms with displays of afternoon lightning that would send whimpering dogs scurrying under beds. Rain would relieve and settle us." I didn't skip a single sentence for fear of losing the simple enjoyment of words regardless of where the story was.
For 6 year old Lizzy Grace, South Africa is her own land and so she does not understand why it is not really so in the eyes of different kinds of people. Afrikaners think of her family as not belonging anywhere being made up of a little bit of the Afrikaner, some Jewishness and some Catholicism. The blacks with whom they live together in harmony imagines them to soon be going back to their own homes across the sea despite her parents being born in South Africa. More than her own mother whom she seems to understand very well, it is Salamina, her black nanny who has Lizzy's heart. She considers Salamina's daughter Moliseng to be her own little sister and in the end related events drive her out of Africa and into US. There is a (spoiler link ->) murder in the book and I have never before been so affected by the murder of a character. Such is Pamela Gien's gift of mingling words and emotions in the gentlest of manners to draw the reader into her book. The syringa tree is not indigenous to Africa but grew roots in its soil and is the solace of Lizzy's loved but insecure childhood. She nested in its branches whenever bothered by daily events . Salamina, The Syringa Tree and her Mother completes a cozy triangle of motherly love for Lizzy in this story.
Sweet Moliseng is so endearing as a baby and a toddler that just like Lizzy we end up anxiously awaiting her dramatic entrances. The little speck held the heart of the Grace household. Dr. Grace is a hero for both Lizzy and the reader as he does all he can for the changing South Africa hurtling towards Apartheid and its ensuing evils. Little brother John, Grandparents and neighbor girl Loeska makes up the rest of her world. A world which is enchanted and threatening at the same time in a way unique to South Africa. What can I say... Every character is portrayed so well that I just love all of them!! It feels a travesty to call them characters as they feel like acquaintances rather. I hope there will be more stories from Pamela Gien. This book is a keeper without doubt and one for the home rather than the Library. Read here for more on the book from the author and here for more on the book from other readers.