The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers

‘How did you recover from a loss so large you could barely believe it?’

South-east Tasmania provides the setting for this novel.  Here, in a small timber town divided between those who want logging to continue and those who want to preserve the remaining forest, we meet three main characters who need to find their own place in the world.

Mikaela (Miki) was 16 years old when her parents were killed in a fire. She’d been home-schooled by her mother on the family orchard.  Miki’s isolation continued when she and her older brother Kurt moved into town where, eighteen months later, they are running a small takeaway business. Miki is kept a virtual prisoner by Kurt, unable to leave the building where they live behind the takeaway, except when Kurt takes her to the forest on Mondays to tend their bee hives. She would love to spend more time in the forest, to see the wedge-tailed eagles and the beautiful old trees.  She would love to meet other people, to experience the outside world.  But Kurt says she must stay inside, under lock and key when he is away, for her own safety.

Leon has moved to the town from Bruny Island.   He’s stayed on Bruny Island to protect his mother from his father, but now his father is fragile, and Leon thinks he can safely leave.  He’s descended from a long line of loggers, but he’s a park ranger.   His grandfather lives in a nursing home nearby, but Leon knows no-one else in the town.  Leon is an outsider, viewed with suspicion (at best) and bullied by some of the loggers.  He tries to fit in by joining the local football team.

Max is 10 years old.  He lives next door to Leon and is struggling under the weight of his father’s expectations.  It doesn’t seem to matter what Max does, it never seems good enough.  And it doesn’t help when his parents argue. But things get out of hand when Max is threatened and bullied by the police sergeant’s son.

There are plenty of issues woven through this novel: bullying, domestic violence, insecurity and insidious secrets.  There’s also a fine appreciation of the natural environment: from the beautiful old trees to the rare wedge-tailed eagles, and the tragedy of the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease.   Ms Viggers realistically depicts the tension between conservationists and the loggers.    The loggers are fighting for economic survival in an environment with limited employment prospects and will resist any attempt to restrict logging even though they recognise sustainability issues.  And there’s Kurt.  Miki’s brother has secrets of his own.

I loved this novel for several different reasons.  I enjoyed the finely depicted main characters, the sensitive handling of some difficult issues, and Ms Viggers’s keen appreciation of the country in which the novel is set. And then there were Miki’s books (‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’) which had belonged to her mother, Leon’s shift from Bruny Island (where readers of ‘The Lightkeeper’s Wife will remember him) and Max’s struggle to protect what is important to him.   I could not put the book down.

There’s courage in this novel: breaking free from the past is never easy.  There’s hope, too, that the bullying and the violence will be eradicated as people recognise what is happening.  I finished this novel wondering what the future would hold for Miki, Leon and Max.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2019