Review of Olive Senior’s “The Pain Tree”  

UntitledHere is a review by Laura Tanner (published in The Gleaner, Sunday, 6 March 2016) of Jamaican author Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree [see previous post Book Launch: Olive Senior’s “The Pain Tree”]. The review speaks about Senior’s literary accomplishments and accolades, her long career as a writer, and specific insights to this recent publication:

Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree, her 17th book, is her best! That’s right, 17 books this Jamaican writer has authored and I still encounter Jamaicans who have never heard of her. Maybe they missed when she won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1987, or was honoured in 2003 with the Norman Washington Manley Foundation Award for Excellence, or in 2004 with the Gold Medal of the Institute of Jamaica. That was after already receiving the Centenary Medal and the Silver Medal of the Institute of Jamaica for contributions to literature. The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados named her Humanities Scholar 2005 not to mention the grants she has received from the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council and the list continues.

I thought the title story from Arrival of the Snake-Woman (1989), drawing on the intimacy of a Trelawny childhood, was her most sensitive work of fiction until I read Discerner of Hearts (1995) where the local science man stole my heart. I’m not much for poetry but her four works of poetry – Talking of Trees (1986), Gardening In The Tropics (1995), Over The Roofs of the World (2005) and Shell (2007) have won numerous international prizes and led to a bilingual French/English collection Un Pipiri m’a dit/A Little Bird Told Me (2014).

In describing The Pain Tree, Senior said: “Unlike my three previous collections where the stories were written one after the other within a fairly compressed period of time, these stories were written over many years and are collected here for the first time.” Three collections of short stories? Oh my gosh, how could I have forgotten Summer Lightning (1986) [. . .]?

She said that most of the stories in The Pain Tree are set in Jamaica and notes: “Several have child protagonists and the ones about adults are set in an earlier time period from, say, the Second World War to the 1970s. In these latter stories, I am particularly interested in exploring the impact of historic events on individual lives and the tensions created by the clash between traditional ways and modernity. One story for instance examines the impact on the psyche of a person encountering television for the first time.”

No wonder these narratives deal with the impact of historic events since so much of Senior’s non-fiction work has taken YEARS of research to create a repertoire of documentaries. Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal (2014) contains such vivid scenes of men knee-deep in snake-infested swamps or running from dynamite charges that you know one day those characters will emerge into her fiction. Her 1984 A-Z of Jamaican Heritage after decades more research morphed into the incredibly valuable Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage in 2004. As far back as 1991 her Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean gave her an intimate knowledge of her gender’s experiences, infused with the traditional culture in which Senior was raised. Take “The Pain Tree,” her latest volume’s lead narrative, how many would comprehend and be able to convey the intimacy yet simultaneous distance which prevails between classes who live and grow together or understand what lies behind the creation of a “pain tree”?

[. . .] In The Pain Tree we have Olive Senior’s enduring works, distilled through an author’s seasoned psyche.

For full review, see http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/art-leisure/20160306/olive-seniors-pain-tree

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