‘Stories, like archeology, are fragmentary, composed of scraps and nuances, and – depending on what is left out – most narratives can be constructed so as to end in either glory or ruin. But the missionaries I had grown up with were neither marauders nor saints; Haiti was neither savage nor noble. The truth was far more complicated’.
When I first read the synopsis for Apricot Irving’s debut, The Gospel of Trees, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the only other missionary story I had read, albeit one of fiction. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible – a tale of an American missionary family under the tyrannical and insufferable rule of their father who are living through a politically turbulent period of Congolese history in the 1960s – has many similarities to The Gospel of Trees – which chronicles the story of another American missionary family, who are also under the rule of an overbearing and strong-willed father during a period of upheaval in Haiti during the eighties and nineties. However, these are perhaps the only similarities I would make with Kingsolver’s masterpiece of literary fiction. Although I found Irving’s writing beautiful, honest and engrossing at times, at others I found it to be too bogged down in teen-angst-driven family drama.
‘At fourteen, I knew only that his rage, even if it stemmed from grief, was a poison that was seeping into all of us. If we did not find a way to survive sorrow, we, too, would self-destruct’.
Setting out her reasons for wanting – or needing – to write this memoir about her time in Haiti, which spanned from when she was six to fifteen, it’s clear that this period of Irving’s life was one of great tension, particularly when it came to her own relationship with her father. She wonderfully, but brutally, captures this relationship with the image of ‘resentment’ growing between them ‘like a hedge of rakét cactus, barbed and impenetrable’. An agronomist with high ideals and expectations, Irving’s father becomes bitterly disappointed with the lack of progress he is able to make in this relentless country. Perhaps because of this disappointment, he lashes out at his family. It is from this perspective that Apricot, as a young girl and even into her adulthood, questions whether her father loves Haiti more than his own family.
Spending most of their time in the hospital compound amongst other missionaries, this place called home, which was one of fun and freedom as a six year old, becomes a repressive prison when Apricot returns as a teenager. Forced to live in the strict confines not just of the compound, but also of her Christian, missionary upbringing, Irving begins to love the surroundings outside of these barriers. When she looks outside of this enclosed community she finds a love greater than god; she finds beauty. Some of the most poignant scenes in The Gospel of Trees are when she describes the landscape of Haiti – from the stunning mountains to the everyday street life, bustling with the noise of bus horns and bicycles and the smells of street vendors. It’s clear that she has a deep lasting love of Haiti – which is further enforced by her inability, decades later, to keep away.
‘Too often the only stories we told ourselves – as missionaries, aid workers, philanthropists, and journalists – were small but significant ways we had helped a country in need, failing to understand that pity was corrosive’.
Reporting on the political climate and the earthquake of 2010 in the last part of the memoir, Irving equates the missionary ideal with that of the NGO and questions whether these organisations have a positive impact on the local communities they work in. It’s with brutal honesty that Irving points out the failures of missionaries. Whilst portraying the complicated nature of missionary life, she tries to evade the categories – biography or exposé – that most of these stories tend to fall into. Although I appreciated the efforts she went to in order to create an account that wasn’t straightforwardly right or wrong, I often felt like this point was reinforced too much.
Overall, I found Irving’s depiction of Haiti really insightful and interesting but was less intrigued by her own personal family life. At times it felt like Apricot the writer was omnipotent throughout, hinting at startling discoveries to come which never followed through. Perhaps some objectivity when recounting her earlier years in Haiti would have helped to get into the story a bit more.
‘The Gospel of Trees’ by Apricot Irving will be out on 6th March. Thank you to Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley, for the review copy.