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Book Review: The Orchard on Fire (Shena Mackay) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay, published in the United States by Moyer Bell, $18.95 hardcover.

Thinking back to childhood, I recall only images, faint glimpses of the events that shaped my young life. It is the same way I remember dreams; only the strongest impressions penetrate the fog of my feeble memory. How often I wish that I could somehow return to childhood to relive these moments, to build on the few faint memories that remain.

I was able to vicariously achieve this dream through author Shena Mackay's Booker Prize short-listed novel, THE ORCHARD ON FIRE. In it, April, Mackay's eight-year-old main character, travels back–both physically and emotionally–to her childhood and the English village where she grew up.

The novel opens with the protagonist, now a middle-aged teacher living in a modern-day city, restless and disillusioned with her life. On a humid July evening at the start of the summer holidays, she decides, in a startling moment of clarity, to return to Stonebridge.

Chapter two begins with some brief historical background on the village of Stonebridge and on her parents, who eight-year-old April precociously refers to as Percy and Betty. Our last word from the middle-aged April, as she draws us back 40 years through time is: 'I'm the one in tears between them, eight years old.'

For the next 200 pages we see the world through the eyes of this eight-year-old girl. We share April's small, circumscribed existence in her tiny village, highlighted by her adventures with her unruly best friend Ruby. Stonebridge's personalities become familiar to us–the eccentric artists Bobs and Dittany, the ill-tempered schoolteacher Miss Fay, and the lecherous Mr. Greenidge.

We are so drawn in that as April matures throughout the course of the story, a mild discomfort creeps over us. We shake our heads sadly as she is forced to accept the hard truths of life and learns for herself, as all children must, that the world is not entirely a good and happy place.

Sheena Mackay tells her story with the delicate, often painfully honest prose for which she is best known. Her command of the language allows her to communicate the subtlest longings of a childish heart with the articulate power of one who remembers them precisely, but yet without clouding the narrative with the retrospective analysis of an adult. Mackay writes as an eight-year-old child might, if she were miraculously given the gift of eloquent prose.

For anyone who has ever longed to return to the blissful naiveté of childhood and can bear the pain of reliving the inevitable loss of this innocence, The Orchard on Fire is an essential novel.

The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay, published in the United States by Moyer Bell, $18.95 hardcover.

Leigh Ann Berry

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