Napoleon’s Willow by Joan Norlev Taylor – 2016

Napoleon's_WillowBishop Pompallier says in this book: “We do not live in the Garden of Eden, though we may try to make our small corner resemble it” – but as well as the Tree of Life, the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil also grew in the Garden and evil is hard to avoid when you arrive in a land and see it “like a spread of new cloth, waiting to be cut and formed, full of promise.”  The three main protagonists in Napoleon’s willow each has a relationship with the willow tree – for young Frenchman Francoise the willow is a symbol of life and hope; he gathers a cutting from the willow planted on St Helena by Napoleon and later plants it in what was to become Akaroa – hoping to instil the ideals of his hero in the new nation. For Marianne the willow symbolises dread and downfall – she makes a life-changing mistake under a willow tree in England, and sees a willow during all the moments of great tragedy in her life from then on.  For New Zealander Manako-uri it is up to Tāne whether the willow planted in his soil is good or evil – a harbinger of peace or of even more bloodshed.  Each of these characters is an outsider – we first meet Francoise when he is in exile for taking part in the failed Bonapartist uprising; Marianne has to continually lie about her past to keep what little status and respect she has in her community; and Manako-uri is a survivor from an almost wiped out hapū who isolates his remaining family to keep them from the scourges of European diseases.  All three are in The Horomaka or Banks Peninsular in the 1840s when both England and France are laying claim to land that is already inhabited.  And division is rife; the English separate themselves from the French, the French royalists separate themselves from the French republicans, the English and French administrators combine and separate themselves from the settlers and both the English and the French generally separate themselves from the New Zealanders – who are under neither’s jurisdiction, as that is what is in question.  All of which leads to an absolutely fascinating tale.  Central to what frustrates them in creating or preserving their Garden of Eden is a lack of political power.  The French settlers lack it – one is put in chains when trying to stand up for settler rights; the administrators lack it, having to wait for political decisions made elsewhere; the New Zealanders’ lack it – they are being decimated by disease and their land is being sold under spurious and confusing processes; and women lack it – being at the mercy of men physically, economically and socially.  “She looked at boat parties going backwards and forwards from ship to ship as matters in the world of men played out in the cabins of European captains: great matters of diplomacy and trade, economics and empires, nations and government, all being decided while they floated on the water, in suspension, watched by the people of the land.”  But against this backdrop – in a country new to some and very old to others – there is also tapu – those things sacred, forbidden, those things red like blood: “The untouchables are the ones with the power”.  These are the other than political powers arising from a vision of a new order, from a confidence in nature and one’s ancestors, from a woman discovering she doesn’t have to conform …  Yet another great piece of New Zealand historical fiction.

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1 Response to Napoleon’s Willow by Joan Norlev Taylor – 2016

  1. Pingback: Review of Napoleon’s Willow | Joan Norlev Taylor

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