Robert Madrygin’s The Solace of Trees opens with Amir being interrogated by Bosnian officials demanding to know why he’s come back to Bosnia. He left Bosnia ten years earlier, an eleven-year-old war orphan refugee. They ask him if he is Bosnian or American and he wonders if he is either which leads him back to the day he woke up in the forest, his family dead, their home destroyed by a grenade, his hearing and his voice gone. From there, the story moves forward, telling of his escape to the U.N. refugee camp, a harrowing, tragic escape assisted by a Serbian boy he befriended.
They assume he is disabled, which makes it possible for them to send him to the United States to live with a foster family and get the help he needs and his find safety. There he is adopted by a psychology professor who had retired. He finds family with her and her family and grows up, goes to college, meets a girl, and follows her back to Bosnia for a vacation. But he’s Muslim, it’s post-9/11 and helping out one of his teachers, a controversial advocate for Palestinians, casts a wide cloud of suspicion, bringing us to the beginning and his trip through the horrors of American counter-terrorism post-9/11.
The Solace of Trees should be right up my alley. It’s a story that asks us to think about war and about how we casually accept collateral damage, how we ignore the civilian casualties, how we care so much about an individual American who dies while not even knowing the thousands of on-Americans who die. It expresses a lot of my politics. The story is compelling, harrowing, and grim. However, it suffers from too little faith in its readers.
You know how a black and white photo seems so much more intriguing than a color photo or how Van Gogh’s Night Sky is so much more compelling than NASA’s, it’s because the viewer has to engage emotionally, has to participate in comprehending the picture. When an author not only tells us what happens, but also what everyone is thinking, we have no work to do. We don’t get to question why things happen, we don’t get to puzzle out people’s actions and feelings. We don’t have to get involved or care, because we are not participating in the story, we are receiving it, pre-digested. Worse, not only are we told what everyone thinks, we are told what we should think.
Here’s the thing, we readers are smarter enough to figure it out for ourselves. Not giving us room to do that leaves us detached, and frankly, feeling patronized. I thought there was this marvelous plot that could effectively engage readers emotionally and move them to care – particularly with the issue of war refugees so urgent right now. But, how can we engage when we are reading on idle?
That said, the sections of the book that explore the solace of trees – the beautiful prose, the passionate love of the wild, the breeze, the wind, the sounds, all of it. That is amazing. If Madrygin could write about the rest with that kind of showing, that kind of absence of explanation, this book could have been magical.
The Solace of Trees will be released on July 11th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.
- The Solace of Trees at New Europe Books
- The Solace of Trees at Penguin Random House
- Robert Madrygin at Medium