Schofield, Robert: The Fig Tree and the Mulberry

Footprints in the sand

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 16.09.2011

In the early 1990s Diane Samuels wrote Kindertransport, a gripping play about Eva/Evelyn, a nine-year-old girl who was sent from Germany to Manchester in 1939 as part of a wider initiative that rescued almost 10 000 Jewish children before the outbreak of war. An English child evacuee embarking on a much more exotic journey is at the centre of The Fig and the Mulberry, the novel by Robert Schofield which came se-cond in last year’s Concours littéraire national and has just been published by Éditions Saint-Paul.

Anna Turner is six in 1940 when her parents decide to send her to New Zealand, where she is to stay with distant relatives. When the book opens, it is 1946 and Anna is on her way back to London. She is both unhappy and nervous about being reunited with her parents and sister, who have become but ‘empty, hollowed silhouettes’ in the photo she is carrying in the document pouch around her neck. As the train leaves Southampton, she is going over key moments of her New Zealand years, eager not to let her memory betray her yet again.

Tom and Flo, her foster parents, as well as their daughter Lizzie, loom large, but there are also the Mitchell boys next-door who were usually out to intimidate and bully her, as well as her fellow pupils and the nuns at the convent school. And then, as the title suggests, there is the garden, which was so lovingly tended by Tom and soon became a refuge for Anna, a secret space she could hide in and spy from on the world going by.

The contrast between the lush New Zealand landscapes and the more hemmed-in vistas of England with their desolate bombsites is striking. Even English birds are a let-down: while ‘an untidy grey bird’ is swinging away from the London train, the ‘endlessly cheeky’ tui in Tom’s garden came across as a much homelier presence although he invariably targeted the figs and mulberries the whole family cherished year after year.

The novel is most engaging when it leaves room for speculation: What has happened to Anna’s London home? What is the story behind Tom’s limp? And how does he feel about the death of Mattie, his only son? Ironically, Tom is a rather talkative character, but in some ways he is also the most secretive and vulnerable adult in the novel, a husband and father who tries to be in charge at all times.

Auckland life is deftly conjured up, though there is one odd moment in the plot when our expectations are built up around the First Commu-nion celebrations – only to die an instant death thanks to an outbreak of measles! At least Anna herself would have given the occasion some more thought, I think.

Still, all in all, the novel reads very well. The narrative sweeps you along as it alternates between present and past, between the truly dramatic moments of a torpedo attack and the quieter, domestic scenes around jam making or the yearly ritual of listening to Christmas messages on the wireless. The gentle lyricism of most of the garden passages is particularly welcome.

You should certainly not judge The Fig Tree and the Mulberry by its cover! The book could have done without the type of picture you expect to see in a chemist’s window – on a poster advertising some innocuous, completely ‘natural’ remedy. A note about the author himself would have been interesting, too!

Robert Schofield, The Fig Tree and the Mulberry, Éditions Saint Paul, 2011. ISBN 978-2-87963-825-6
Janine Goedert
© 2023 d’Lëtzebuerger Land