The banyan tree, which has taken twelve years to write, is Christopher Nolan’s third book and first novel. His second, the lyrical autobiography, Under the eye of the clock, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1987, and his first, a collection of poems, Dam-burst of dreams, was published at the precocious age of 15.
Nolan, who is disabled by cerebral palsy, types with the aid of a stick attached to his head. In The banyan tree he ventures, for the fist time, beyond his own life story, to chronicle the history of one woman’s life. The banyan tree of the title refers to the book’s heroine, Minnie O’Brien, and how her branches (that is, her experience and her children) root themselves across the present century.
We learn about Minnie’s parents, her birth, her marriage to Peter and the subsequent births of her three children. We share her life nurturing their five fields in Westmeath, and come to understand her desire to leave the land intact to her youngest son, the prodigal Frankie.
As children go, Minnie’s are not exactly idealised. The eldest, Brendan, enters the church where he takes on ‘the face of debased priesthood’, swilling vodka and popping valium with the worst of them. The daughter, Sheila, makes the least of her life by marrying a rich man, thus sacrificing her nursing career to his worthlessness. And the youngest, Frankie, disappoints in departing for the antipodes, not bothering to send home a word to his eternally faithful mother.
Nolan’s interest in this fat, ambitious novel is centred on the texture of living. The minutiae of life preoccupy him. His pages abound with details of washing, making love, preparing food, seeing to animals, riding on a bus. Objects are recreated with loving care, often imbued with a life of their own—a mousetrap; a violin, a grandfather clock, a cast-iron cat. This is no plot-driven narrative. Indeed, not a whole lot happens, the author choosing, instead, a leisurely pace which suggests the ordinary passage of time.
At times, Nolan seems more absorbed by language than in the story that he is telling. In love with words, the author uses them with a Renaissance lavishness, rarely using one when twenty will do. As a reader, I can’t always share this enthusiasm. Language for its own sake irritates me when it detracts from meaning. Consider the following sentence about the sun: ‘Swinging about then the sphere eyed the morning’s linen sheets, as bluffing and blowing they stealthily soaked up any broken-veined clouds which dared to be present.’ To my mind, this kind of florid sentence slows the reader down, disengaging her from the story.
That being said, however, there is much to interest in The banyan tree. Nolan’s scenes of Dublin in the earlier years of this century are vividly drawn, and there is considerable zest in some of his portraiture, in particular that of Minnie’s land-loving neighbour, Jude Fortune, the woman for whom ‘there was no such thing as love. Cone-shaped need yes.’ And I would happily have read more about a tantalising subplot involving Minnie’s husband’s illegitimate son.
More attentive editing would encourage the author to focus his enthusiasm for language. It would also save him from blunders like situating New York City’s Plaza Hotel in the neighbourhood of the UN buildings, or the odd spelling mistake like ‘armiture’. Nolan’s literary ability is clearly formidable. I do not doubt that he will right a powerful, gripping novel; for the moment, The banyan tree reveals a young novelist experimenting with his craft.