In brief ★★★★
The Orchardist’s Daughter is a rich, no-holds-barred portrait of life in a small Tasmanian community, covering issues from environmental protection to domestic violence and emotional abuse (note some material may be triggering). It’s a far heavier read than I expected, but Viggers imbues her realism with just the right dose of hope to be empowering.
Nearly eighteen year old Miki lives under her brother’s thumb, locked in their house and unable to influence anything about her life, even which station is on the TV. At the same time, Leon moves into their logging community as an instant outsider – who could be more loathed by loggers than a park ranger? Both characters have their Rubicons to cross, but it’s their interactions in the small town community that form the heart of this story.
Viggers beautifully (and at times excruciatingly) captures the pressures, perks and quirks of small town life with the same natural ease as Chris Hammer in Scrublands – the town and its inhabitants feel impressively real. The community forms both the cause of conflict and the means to support resolution, showing the complex nature of human interactions. I felt uncomfortable with the dominant masculine culture of the town and its inhabitants – there are very few fathers/adult men who are likeable – but Viggers is shining a spotlight on the toxic environments that do exist, and the ways they can (and must) be altered.
I must admit I spent most of this novel in a state of anxiety for both Miki and Leon, which is a testament to Viggers’ writing and pacing. The dramatic climax is visceral and violent, but not gratuitous – rather, it feels necessary after the pressure-cooker of the build up.
The plot is laced with tension and conflict – Miki’s struggle for independence, Leon’s battle for acceptance; loggers versus conservationists, poverty versus principle – but I was especially moved by the subplot of Leon’s young neighbor Max, who experiences bullying and peer pressure that draws him away from the innocence and joy of his childhood. I was invested in all of these conflicts, and none felt superficial or glossed over, as they might in the hands of an inferior storyteller. But with Viggers, we’re in good hands. Notably, she gives great power to older characters – Leon’s grandfather and Geraldine at the community centre both have dramatic influences on events (vague, but I don’t want to spoil things!) which I adored!
But Viggers’ writing really shines when she’s describing the landscape – Tasmania’s old growth forests come to life under her compassionate hand, from their sprawl to their destruction. I was lucky enough to hear Viggers in conversation last week and she admitted “I have to write what is true to me and what is in my heart… And I’m at my best when I’m in a natural environment.” Her love for animals leaps off the page too, drawing attention to the plight of Tasmanian devils and other rare species, as much as the neglect of domestic pets.
My only gripe was with the title – while Miki is the eponymous daughter, I felt that Leon shared the spotlight as the novel’s protagonist. In many ways he’s the catalyst for change in the community and without his arrival other plotlines wouldn’t have been possible.
But overall The Orchardist’s Daughter is a vital, honest look at community, the environment and courage that you won’t regret picking up.
I received a copy of The Orchardist’s Daughter from Allen and Unwin in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Recommended if you liked: All the Birds, Singing