The Drago Tree by Isobel Blackthorn is an environmental romance. The love object is Lanzarote, the stunningly beautiful island that is the easternmost of the Canary Islands, its geography making it the target of conquest and invasion by pirates, Spanish conquistadors, and tourists. Yes, there are people involved, but the land dominates everyone and everything.
“She felt herself expand in the face of what she saw. Ever since her first geology field trip in the Lake District she had known there exists something profound and ineffable in the relationship between nature and the human beholder, a capacity to feel exhilarated by nature’s beauty, as if she could transcend her little life in the face of the earth’s grandeur.”
Ann is drawn to the land, to Lanzarote’s wild and stark volcanic landscape. It is land formed by volcanoes, by violent eruptions. She seeks refuge there after the explosive collapse of her marriage. In fact, she describes her life in geologic terms, it’s failure beginning as soon as they married. “Within weeks their interactions were tectonic, always grinding and crashing into each other, until their relationship had become a grotesque deformation.”
She meets Richard, a successful genre writer, not that she is terribly impressed by that since she is a bit of a literary snob. Sparks fly between Ann and Richard, a mix of attraction and antagonism. She’s feeling prickly and he’s far too shallow for her.
There is a third wheel on several of their excursions, a local potter named Diego. Richard picked him out to be his friend on the island and Diego goes along with him to a degree. Many of the conversations among the three of them concern the history of Lanzarote and the role of tourism in the present. Ann and Diego are decidedly anti-tourism while Richard sees it as a necessary element to the economic development and enrichment of the island.
Ann is quite disdainful of tourists and tourism. She’s irritated when they crowd the sites she goes to see. She loathes the flashes of their cameras in the caves and the hubbub of their conversation, their amusement at the tour guide’s humor and their very existence. Heritage should just be lived, not collected and examined. Of course, she’s a tourist, too. And when Richard points it out, she is livid. “His comment cut her like shrapnel. She despised him then, intensely.”
And if all tourists picked up a special stone at every site they visited, they would denude the beaches and cliffs and caves of small stones. For someone who examines so much of her life, there is a moral obtuseness here. She reminds me of those who think they stand apart, that they are travelers, not tourists.
It is not that she never interrogates herself. She sees herself as somewhat like the land of Lanzarote. “Crusting over the top with cool thoughts and detached emotions was all very well, but underneath, rattling about in that hollowed chamber, lived memories of past torments, moiling vestiges like brooding bats poised to scream in fits of frenzy in response to any slight.”
She recognizes that there is a similar avidity in scientists as in tourists in an interesting extended metaphor. This highlights one of the delights and exasperations of The Drago Tree. Isobel Blackthorn is in love with language and with crafting outstanding sentences, finding new and unique metaphors. There’s a precision and beauty to her prose that is undeniable. Sometimes, though, this is at the expense of the narrative. Blackthorn is more in love with writing than with telling a story.
“What about her? A scientist—didn’t she have the same wanderlust, the same yearning to discover? The scientist’s quest is indefatigable, a million wandering minstrels popping up everywhere, chanting hypotheses, strumming out experiments, singing gleefully their proofs and verifications, consummate lab-coat entertainers satisfying their inquisitive minds. Tell me more, I need, I must, I have to know the answer, the solution, the prevention, the cure. The whole earth is unearthed in this insatiable desire to know.
I enjoyed The Drago Tree. I liked the prose far more than the story. I think the writing mattered more than the story and that was her choice. It’s a bit of a confusing novel because Blackthorn is trying to accomplish too much. She’s writing a story of a woman finding herself, a story of family tragedy and struggle, a romance and an environmental manifesto. She is most successful with the last, because after all, this story really is a love affair with the land and history of Lanzarote. The rest is decoration.
Is humanity doomed by its own inquisitive and acquisitive drives? Is that what the myth of Atlantis is really about? Not a story of a fallen civilization long ago, but a warning, a foretelling of what is to come? Surely that is a doomsday mentality, yet maybe we are bound ”
Although this quote is pessimistic, the story does find hope, not just for Ann, but for Lanzarote as well.
I received an electronic copy of The Drago Tree from the publisher through NetGalley.