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The Palaver Tree (Berriwood Series Book 1) Kindle Edition
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"Even after two years of marriage, she often woke with the feeling that she was somewhere she didn’t belong and would be caught, any moment, on the loose without an entrance ticket."
She moves to a small African village to teach, but that it turns out brings its own set of problems. By the time Ellie gets through these new experiences, she's changed. I was originally pulled in by the cover, but it was the gorgeous storytelling from Wendy that kept me reading.
"There was a tension in the house like musical strings, stretched to their limit and fit to snap."
"Lately, any sentence honored with a mention of her husband was apt to hemorrhage sarcasm like warm treacle through a sieve."
You cannot fail but enjoy this tale of Ellie's personal growth from unmotivated housewife to extraordinarily accomplished adult.
Author: Wendy Unsworth
Genre: Mainstream Fiction
Length: 120,000 words (estimated)
Reviewer: Pearson Moore
Rating: 2.5 stars
Goodreads listing: [...]
British aid workers get caught up in a web of conspiracy, corruption, and power struggles in a Central African republic. Unsavory swindlers take advantage of political corruption to plunder charitable organizations and ruin lives. The Palaver Tree tells a story of personal tragedy and loss in the lives of Ellie Hathaway of Cornwall and several Central African families.
This story offers fascinating characters and sets up an intricate web of corruption and deceit but fails to engage at the beginning and provides a formulaic ending rather than bringing about true resolution. Expert plotting and outstanding character portraits in the middle 75 percent of the novel are hampered by poor story set-up and haphazard associations to a too-large cast of supporting characters. The two major plot threads, focusing on a British con artist and a Central African political leader's quest for power, are not well integrated, leading to an unsatisfying ending. The text contains mild- to medium-severity grammatical and usage errors. The novel would have benefitted from copy editing and content editing prior to publication.
The main characters are nicely drawn. Once I completed the long, difficult, and poorly structured first section of the novel, I found myself taken in by Ellie, long-suffering Promise, self-absorbed Tiffany, 'Smart Alec' (a Central African local who is more than he appears to be), and the very smooth Gabriel Cole, who is one of the most magnificently built baddies I've had the pleasure of reading.
Getting to the point of being able to follow the characters was not easy. After several dozen reviews, and several hundred rejections (I hate writing one-star reviews, so I reject the truly awful novels), I'm used to novels with too many characters. This nearly epic-scale novel has fewer than six dozen named characters, which is not necessarily difficult to manage. However, even with very careful tracking of names--writing them down and categorizing them on the fly--I was often stymied in understanding character relationships. In many cases, a first name mentioned on page 12 or 25 did not receive a surname until page 220 or 315. I often had to guess at a character's identity by behavior clues. For instance, on page 189, 'Inger' was eating off someone's lap. My best guess, based on context, was that Inger was a pet, probably a dog or cat. It wasn't until much later that 'Inger' entered into conversation, and at first I guessed she was a child. Much later, though, it seemed as though 'Inger' was probably an adult woman. To be honest, even after having completed the novel, I don't know if Inger was child or woman. This was a particularly egregious example of inadequate character description, but there were many such instances throughout the novel. Tiffany's mother, a character frequently mentioned throughout the novel, was given substantial bits of dialog but no name. She was simply 'Tiffany's mum' until finally, on page 250 (!!), she identified herself as Sharon, 'but everyone calls me Shas.' Yikes! I had to struggle too hard to gather the smallest tidbit to figure out character relationships, many of which were critical to the plot.
I would have rejected this novel for review if not for the strong plot that coalesced about 15 percent of the way into the novel. This plot was crafted with such expertise, it was as if I were suddenly reading a different book, especially in light of the sloppy set-up early on and the complete lack of discernible hook. I found myself reading faster and faster, soaking up the story and loving every page. Wow! It was finally a real novel, and I quickly ramped up from a 1- or 2-star review to possibly considering a four star. But the ending fizzled. There were two major plotlines, one of which determined the protagonist's fate and caused by far the greatest suffering for most of the characters. But the other plotline, that really figured through the greater part of the story, was not well integrated. There was a telling scene during the mayhem of Ellie's almost-escape, when Promise saw the antagonist talking on the phone. I interpreted his actions (or actually his lack of action) during that phone call as strong indication that the bad guy was part of the power grab going on all around him in Ducana (the fictitious Central African republic). In my copious notes, I wrote 'Why else would he have returned to Ducana? He must be part of President Dede's conspiracy!' Well, no, unfortunately, he was not. This would have been fine, too, but neither plot thread was satisfactorily resolved by the end.
For readers looking for nothing more than an interesting 'slice of life' with quite fascinating characters, this novel may serve very nicely. Those readers seeking something more may wish to pass and find better constructed stories.
Grammatical errors were rampant, as is frequently the case in self-published novels. Editing is expensive, and few aspiring writers possess the basic wordsmithing skills to recognize these types of errors. Vocative case errors were particularly noticeable but were erratic, as if an editor came through but caught only half the errors. These are often nothing more than a mild distraction, but in this novel were at times truly problematic. For instance, at one point (p. 181), a character speaks with Ellie, saying, "I can manage Ellie. Have a joyous weekend." A fast reader might not catch that the character was speaking with Ellie, and therefore come away with the mistaken impression that the character was claiming to be able to manage or deal with Ellie. The irregularity of this mistake was stunning. So, for example, on p. 71, a character says, "You can't Sweetheart," but on p. 72 says, "It's not going to be September, Sweetheart." I found dozens of such examples. Confusion of plural with singular possessive, common among non-writers, occurred here but with relatively low frequency. So, for example, "The Patel's would have assumed her already gone." (p. 299)
The good-hearted and generous people in a tightly knit community in Cornwall seek to help the hopeless children in Africa. Two women of some means, Elly and Diane, are eager to help, when they hear about the Hope Foundation run by Gabriel Cole. In London, the poor and gullible Tiffany runs the foundation and only wants to be loved by her employer and lover, Gabriel. The poor girls, Promise and Beauty, in Gabriel's service in Africa bring him more than tea. Gabriel becomes the all-encompassing evil force in this novel rich in its beautiful description of the African landscape and its wildlife.
The novel is heartbreaking in its characterization of vulnerable and defeated folks, yet it soars with hope as dedicated individuals come together to form their own version of the "Palaver tree" to tell their stories and make decisions.
It is in these individual stories and connections that the human spirit fights for survival against some pretty awful odds. Unsworth tells this story using a wide variety of relationships to express the defeats and triumphs we all experience through marriage, friendship, and professional associations. She effortlessly weaves her story, and despite the wide-ranging lives of all the characters, somehow they all manage to find the universal denominators to form unwavering bonds.
In the beginning, a politeness exists between the characters, which prevent them from going to the "Palaver tree" to compare notes about the evil Gabriel. There exists in the good characters an unwillingness to believe in the corruption of their bank accounts and hearts.
To me, that is the lesson from The Palaver Tree. We become stronger when we gather to communicate, decide, and encourage in order to survive the worst of ordeals.
Through the exceptional storytelling talent of Wendy Unsworth, it is easy to believe in the words of Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
The “Palaver tree” bears fruit when those who visit walk away believing that goodness still exists in a world darkened by the few with dead hearts.