Photo: wooden boats Caribbean beach

A Caribbean beach scene evokes the setting for Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange.

Photograph by Eli Fuller - Antiqua, Getty Images

By Don George

July 2009

Book of the Month: 
Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange,
by Amanda Smyth

From its first page, Amanda Smyth's compelling debut novel, Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange, wraps readers in the sensual riches and lilting rhythms of Caribbean island life. In this case, the island is Tobago, and Smyth lovingly evokes the place, with its frangipani and lime trees, breadfruit trees whose "leaves were thick and hard like plastic," beaches strewn with "shells and pieces of driftwood thrown up like old bones," mangrove trees, blue crabs, and sea grape trees.

The book's protagonist is an intelligent and restless teenage girl named Celia, who feels adrift in this place. Raised by her aunt and uncle, Celia dreams of one day journeying to England to meet the father she has never known. Eventually Celia does escape to the bigger and more populous island of Trinidad, where she settles in the bustling capital, Port of Spain, working for the household of a doctor from England.

Before leaving Tobago, Celia is told by the local soothsayer, "Men will want you like they want a glass of rum. One man will love you. But you won't love him. You will destroy his life. The one you love will break your heart in two." On Trinidad the truth of these prophecies slowly unfolds, and in this unfurling, Smyth demonstrates that she is equally adept at evoking the character and pace of island life, its mix of sun-beaten indolence and simmering violence, catch-as-catch-can employment and postcard-prettified dreams, and the uneasy racial roles that still move, even in the middle of the 20th century, to the ghostly tune of colonial times.

As the tale moves with inexorable power towards its startling conclusion, Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange cultivates the poignancy of Caribbean island life to almost unbearably luxuriant bloom.

New-Book Roundups:
Adventures in Archaeology

In Drawing in the Dust, by Zoë Klein, an American archaeologist working in Israel discovers under an Arab couple's house the bones of the prophet Jeremiah and a mysterious woman named Anatiya, and a scroll in Anatiya's words that challenges long-held interpretations of the prophet's story. Controversy surrounding the discovery leads to a forbidden love as well as measured insights into Israeli and Arab traditions. In the absurdist Little Fingers, by Filip Florian, a young archaeologist investigates a mass grave unearthed in a small mountain town in Romania from which fingerbones keep disappearing each night. Colorful supporting characters and overlapping story lines weave a wry yet sensitive tapestry of post-Communist Europe.

Au Naturel

In Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization, author Ken McAlpine visits the five Channel Islands off the coast of California on solo week-long trips spread throughout the year, Walden-like retreats from Blackberrys and blogs that provide ample opportunity for stargazing and soul-searching. The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana is naturalist/novelist Rick Bass's ode to life in the wilderness and the abundant secrets of nature in northwestern Montana's Yaak Valley. Elisabeth Hyde's novel In the Heart of the Canyon streaks down the Colorado River on a whitewater rafting trip that assembles a motley crew of 12 rafters tested against both the baking heat of the Grand Canyon in summer and the challenge of the river. The last installment in Vintage Departures' "Near Death" series, Near Death in the Desert, edited by Cecil Kuhne, collects 12 tales of life-threatening treks in deserts from Baja California to Moroccan Sahara, by such authors as Jeffrey Tayler and Wilfred Thesiger.

Writers to Discover

Ambitious and restless, author Aisling Juanjuan Shen tells her remarkable story in A Tiger's Heart: The Story of a Modern Chinese Woman: growing up in a small rice-farming village in China's Yangtze Delta, becoming the first person in her village to go to college, buying her way out of an unsatisfying teaching job, and eventually heading to southern China in search of success in the business world. A Romeo-and-Juliet love story lies at the center of Rafik Schami's Damascus-set novel The Dark Side of Love, which spans three generations and takes in a century of Syrian history and domestic life.

Reading Matchmaker:
If You Like...

...the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, check out Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey. The first in a planned series starring Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, this complex mystery is set not in Precious Ramotswe’s beloved Botswana but in grittier Ghana. The Accra-based Dawson is sent to the small village of his youth, Ketanu, to investigate the murder of a young woman. Dawson’s big-city sensibility and rebel nature clash with age-old rural customs, but his personal insight makes him an invaluable asset in the baffling case. Author Quartey, raised in Ghana and now practicing medicine in Los Angeles, paints a fresh and multi-hued portrait of an African country readers may not know a lot about.

One Last Thing:
A Curious Quest in Italy

I love quest stories and I love Italy, so it was almost pre-ordained that I would love David Farley’s An Irreverent Curiosity—the delightful depiction of a medieval-meets-New-Age hilltop Italian town and the role of a controversial but revered relic in its history. The relic is the foreskin of Jesus Christ, and Farley delivers a compelling mix of history, sociology, and travel reportage as he doggedly traces the tale of the Holy Foreskin’s arrival in the town of Calcata and then tries to unravel the mystery of its disappearance in 1983. Told with gusto, good humor, and a healthy respect for eccentricity, Farley’s quixotic account is an eloquent testament to the power of travel—and travail—to entertain and illuminate.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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