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May 9, 2014

The Roving Tree by Elsie Augustave


Iris’ dying wish is to ensure that her newborn child learns her life story “so that she could understand who she is“. When Iris passes on from her earthly existence, she is given access to pen, paper, and the memories of family members who can fill in gaps about her past. In this way, Ms. Augustave takes us into the life of a Haitian girl who is adopted at age five by a white American family and raised in the US.

At her birth mother’s behest, Iris never returns to Haiti until she is an adult, but although she is immersed in the American culture, she always finds herself on the fringe of the society, “yearning for a familiar world“.

In the first half of The Roving Tree, Iris writes about her Haitian roots. The description of the physical, cultural, and political landscape of Haiti, in fact, the descriptions of scenes throughout the book, are graphic and captivating. The imagery is spot on. Haitian culture, especially as it relates to voodoo, is clearly well-researched, but this section is written in a way that makes it feel more like a non-fiction exposé than a part of the narrative of a fiction book.

The book really comes to life in the second half when Iris travels to Africa. There we watch Iris blossom into a woman even as she navigates a very complicated relationship. Iris and the other cast members develop into multi-dimensional characters who will capture the reader’s attention and heart. As one would expect from the way the story begins, the ending is sad but the author presents it in a way that the reader leaves the novel feeling full of hope for the future of the characters.

The novel is full of parallels between life in Haiti and life in Zaire, between Iris’ life and her mother’s life and it begs the question of how far have we really come. It also explores themes of racism, class divisions, and how much of who we are is inherent in our ancestry.

At times the author’s voice pushes through as she manipulates scenes and characters to present viewpoints that are not germane to the story. But overall, The Roving Tree is a well-crafted, well-written novel and I look forward to reading more from Ms. Augustave.

I had the pleasure of being a part of a group which discussed the book with Ms. Augustave on the Caribbean Book Club organised by Eva Wilson at socamom.com and received insight into the author’s motivation, process, and more.

P.S. When you buy your copy study the cover art well, it is quite brilliant.

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