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IoS book review: The Orchardist, By Amanda Coplin

A brooding hero, and the apples of his eye

In a secluded valley in north-west America at the turn of the 20th century, an ageing orchardist named Talmadge lovingly nurtures his trees. He's lived in harmony with the land for most of his adulthood, locked into solitude, the significant events of his life, one would think, well behind him. Then, one day when he goes to town to trade, two destitute girls steal fruit from his stall and, after he treats them with mercy (they are both heavily pregnant) they follow him home. They are sisters, Jane and Della, who have run away from abuse and servitude. In opening his small shack and his heart to them, Talmadge's life is completely disrupted.

Amanda Coplin follows the path of American epic naturalist writers such as John Steinbeck in her beautifully written debut, in the way she tracks the movement of communities and examines the relationship between people and their environment. Early in the novel, we hear how Talmadge's newly widowed mother made the long journey with her children from the silver mines of Oregon to the valley where they settled. She turned two diseased wild apple trees into a flourishing orchard, before she died when he was 12. His sister subsequently disappeared – only her bonnet was ever found – an event that further scarred him, but also left an aching space that the young runaways might fill.

His midwife friend delivers Jane of a daughter, Angeline, but Della's twins die in the womb. Soon afterwards, the girls' sadistic master, James Michaelson, arrives to reclaim them, and in the confusion that follows, Jane hangs herself. After paying Michaelson to go away, Talmadge is left with difficult, damaged Della, and the responsibility of bringing up Jane's baby.

This is a story about loss and yearning and an unusual attempt to create a family. Talmadge sets Della in his vanished sister's place in his heart. But Della always moves beyond him, untameable, unreachable. Her heart is with the herds of wild horses that the native wranglers drive down from the mountains every year to pasture near the orchard. Coplin describes in beautiful, supple prose how Della defies convention by learning to ride, and her subsequent life as a horsewoman, before her demons throw her off course once more. The author's views are fatalistic: her characters will follow the course they've been set upon. There are no chocolate-box endings here.

From big vistas, the novel's concerns narrow down to individuals. Angeline's happy upbringing represents an end to the line of damaged lives. She's loved, trained and nurtured by Talmadge, like one of his trees. She is perfectly suited to a life spent growing things, and Coplin skilfully evokes her characters' oneness with the land as she describes the grafting of new branches on to trees; the precise way apricots should be picked; the changing seasons.

Late in the book, Talmadge notices how like the orchard Angeline has become, because of "her slowness and the attitude in which she held herself – seemingly deferent, quiet". The orchard is so much a part of him that he senses in the air he breathes "something of the trees' inner life … the saturated dreams of chlorophyll and sunshine and water, gravity and roots." From brooding long over deceptively simple ingredients, Coplin has created a psychologically complex novel of considerable emotional power.