How Far Does the Fruit Fall From the Tree?

Amanda Smyth, Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange (New York, Three Rivers Press, 2009) 273pp, ISBN-978-0-307-46064-6 (paperback)1

• December 2010

Throughout Amanda Smyth’s debut novel, Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange, Celia, the protagonist, searches for her own tree, hoping to find in its welcoming branches a sense of belonging and identity. Celia’s mother died during childbirth and her father, she believes, is an Englishman living in Southampton, England. Raised by her Aunt Tassie in Tobago, Celia longs to find her father. She is lured to Trinidad by the promise of a new and exciting life, away from the threatening advances of her Uncle Roman.

Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange paints a brilliant and vivid picture of Trinidad, with a backdrop of fruit trees, hibiscus, mangroves and beaches, secrets of tropical seas washed up on the shore. Smyth is Irish-Trinidadian and clearly has an intimate knowledge of, and relationship with, the island. Her seemingly effortless storytelling style evokes the Caribbean in every sense—its stifling tropical heat, sights and smells—but it is clear from the outset that all is not well in paradise.

Smyth’s novel explores the dynamics of Trinidadian family life and the inequities inherent in the traditional roles of men and women. Celia struggles to shirk her sense of displacement amongst various “families,” beginning with her adopted family and eventually becoming embroiled in family disputes amongst the Rodriguez family, her employers. She finds a dubious ally in Dr. Rodriguez and is privy to intimate moments and family secrets whilst working for the family; but she is considered by everyone, including Dr. Rodriguez, as an outsider, a fact she painfully discovers once scandal surfaces. This dichotomy, along with racial tensions and issues inherent in the relationships between men and women of both European and Caribbean background in the 1950s, is striking in its continued resonance in today’s society. These themes recur throughout generations and cross the boundaries of demographics, with women assuming heavy responsibilities for bridging gaps in broken families and keeping secrets for the “better good.”

All around Celia, women live in their own small worlds, connected in large part by family life, shared secrecy and denial. Several of the women in the book are trapped, consumed by work, family and the necessities of survival, with little hope for romance, adventure or whimsy. Celia stumbles upon obstacles as generations of women have before her. Each of these women have survived and found a life on the islands, a life that inevitably both burdens and rewards them with family and responsibility.  

Celia has varying and complex relationships to these women. For example, underlying cultural tensions infiltrate her relationship with Mrs. Rodriguez as they attempt to co-exist. This tension is often heightened by inequities and exploitation arising from Celia’s position as an employee of the family. Celia is, however, somewhat united with Mrs. Rodriguez when the latter breaks down upon finally acknowledging Celia’s affair with her husband, and eventually returns from “paradise” to England, her own tree of life. Celia’s own consuming desire to escape from the island for a better life, a life which she imagines awaits her in England, parallels that of Mrs. Rodriguez, connecting two women who are disparate in so many ways.

Celia and the women in her family often describe reminiscent childhood memories as if they were lived in an idealized paradise, however, it soon becomes clear that the women in Celia’s family have also suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of men throughout the course of their lives. It seems this is a legacy that Celia is destined to repeat as her journey of self discovery at times delivers her into a hellish existence as she battles with the aftermath of sexual abuse. She overcomes her fears only to have her own heart broken when she mistakes sexual desire for love.

Early in the story, a soothsayer predicts Celia’s future, telling her of the men who will play a part in her life and the outcome of each relationship. From then on, a number of male characters signpost Celia’s quest for independence after her ultimate betrayal by Uncle Roman. Each might initially present as a knight in shining armour, only to inevitably become tarnished by their innate flaws. Dr Rodriguez is overcome by infatuation for Celia, only to disown her as suddenly as he professed his feelings once the stability of his marriage is jeopardized. On the other hand, William, a man she befriends on her escape route from Tobago to Trinidad, waits behind the scenes for Celia to notice him, allowing himself to be manipulated to her advantage.  Celia ultimately resolves to lead her life without secrecy or shame, finding her self -respect and identity within, rather than in roots tangled in fantasy.

Smyth’s new novel contributes richly to the literature of the Caribbean diaspora, questioning the concept of the family unit in Caribbean culture and examining the plights of Trinidadian women struggling to maintain familial relationships with little emotional or financial support. Through Celia’s journey of self-discovery, Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange re-visits cultural and gender issues of the past, urging us to consider how these issues remain relevant in today’s multi-cultural Caribbean society.

 

Jennifer Marshall is freelance writer living in Grand Cayman. She writes non-fiction and short fictional works and is currently working on her first novel.

 


Editor’s note: The British edition of the novel is entitled Black Rock.

 

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