Book Review: The Persimmon Tree, Byrce Courtenay

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As a high school senior, I was a very troubled kid. Not “doing drugs/breaking the law/wild and crazy” troubled — but I was living in a deep world of pain and hurt that stemmed from a lot of things and it was really hard for me. It made me feel isolated from my friends, who lives were much more average than mine. When I met this new, excited, young teacher from South Africa who had recently gotten married and was finally allowed to teach in the US, I knew my life would be forever changed.

During the spring semester of my senior year, she had an extra credit book club that met during lunch. While she was looking for a set of books in the library, she came across a novel that takes place in South Africa called The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. We read that book and discussed it, and although I didn’t need the extra credit, I went anyway because it was the one day each week where that dark, painful place I was in ceased to exist.

Over the years, that teacher (who I now call Mom) and I read more of Courtenay’s books: Whitethorn and April Fool’s Day and Tandia and the list goes on. Here’s the thing, though. Americans are kind of stupid about which books of foreign authors they let into this country. Despite the fact that Barnes and Noble consistently sells copies of The Power of One, they don’t stock Courtenay’s other novels, so my mom and I have been left to the mercy of her every-other-year trips home to stock up.

I recently discovered that Audible carries most of Courtenay’s titles in its library so I bought and listened to The Persimmon Tree. I was so happy to have it, but I have tell you, this review is incredibly hard for me to write. The man whose words helped change my life died of stomach cancer on November 22, 2012. I was at Thanksgiving with a friend and my mom as at a different house when she sent me a text: “Bryce Courtenay died today.” In the middle of a warm, happy room, I very nearly started crying. No one else seemed to understand the importance of losing an author whose words have inspired you, but when I told my mom later that night while we were at Black Friday, she got it — because she very nearly cried when she found out, too.

So it’s with a heavy, heavy heart I write this review.

The Persimmon Tree is Courtenay’s usual affair — it’s an epic story of love and loss that has you both cheering and yelling. In many ways, it reminds me so much of the first of Courtney’s books that I ever read, The Power of One. This book begins in 1942, in the middle of WWII, in the Dutch East Indies. Nick Duncan is a butterfly collector in search of one specific, exotic butterfly when he meets beautiful, young Ann van Heerden. The two both must escape as the Japanese come to capture the island, and although they plan to unite in Australia, things don’t go as planned and it is many, many years before they meet again.

Courtenay’s characters in The Persimmon Tree are beautiful created. I think it helped tremendously that I listened to the audiobook version of this book and the reader, Humphrey Bower, is an incredible reader. Every character came to life before me and I felt myself finding reasons to keep listening. Had I been reading this book, the story would have kept me up during the dark hours of the night. Although certain parts of it were formulaic – as I mentioned, it reminds me a lot of The Power of Oneright down to the underdog named Til who Nick befriends (the equivalent of Geel Piet in The Power of One) – it still captivated me. Coutenary’s characters feel like old friends and his settings feel like places I know intimately.

If you are a fan of books that take you around the world, I highly recommend The Persimmon Tree. Its intriguing characters (including a teenage butterfly collector!), strong sense of place, and constant “will they reunite or won’t they?” make it a book that will not leave your mind for a long time. (And if you enjoy in, which I hope you do, there is a sequel called Fishing for Stars).

Most of Courtenary’s books that aren’t available in the United States (at the time I’m posting this, the only one that is readily available at any US bookstore is The Power of One) but are easily obtained using The Book Depository, which has free worldwide shipping.

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