the orchard thieves – elizabeth jolley

Rating: 4/5

This little book jumped out to me in a thrift store, and with the combination of a lovely cover, a personal note inside, and the fact that it was 4 .95 dollars made me buy it after a considerable amount of debate (I had already decided to buy two other books at said book store).

The note inside read something like this:

“Dear J,

No matter how far apart we may find ourselves during special celebrations, one of the many things which binds us is family. Therefore, a book of family, written by an Australian woman. Happy Birthday. I love you with all my heart.

E”

And as E had written, The Orchard Thieves is a little book about family and the discord that can happen inside a small household. It is a book that moves slowly and has minimal plot, mainly revolving around the musings of a grandmother as she thinks about life, family, love, and other Big Meaningful Things.

The story is told in third person and the main characters are never named, only dubbed the grandmother, the eldest sister, the middle sister, the youngest sister, the aunt, and so on. It’s almost as if the author had peeked inside my mind and stolen the formula for what combination of words sound the best in my mind. What I mean to say is, the writing style – slightly melancholy, deeply reflective, and economical (I couldn’t bear to use another adjective) – was meant for me. Here’s a scene at the near end of the book. It’s rather long, but bear with me:

“A terrible chilling cry sounded through the house. It pulled her from the hen and duckling memories as it must have pulled her earlier, without her realising, from sleep. The cry was followed by another, long drawn out and louder as if the crying had been held back and was no longer being held back. Whatever was causing the cry was too much. Gasping breath and sobs followed and then there was another cry, louder if anything than the previous one. The sounds were hardly human, the grandmother, trembling, fished in the dark for her slippers. She heard the aunt calling that she was coming and the little granddaughter came running, pulling at her nightdress and whimpering.”

The simple sound of this paragraph is enough to make me swoon. I have no idea what attracts me to certain types of writing styles, but Jolley certainly fulfills the wishes of the happiness-granting thingys (excuse my in-eloquence) in my ears. Here’s the very last line if you’ve managed to stick with me this long:

“The grandmother, putting the baby up to her shoulder and feeling the softness of the baby’s cheek against her own, remarked that there was really only one week between a bad haircut and a good haircut.”

Isn’t that the loveliest thing? And exactly the kind of thing you’d expect a grandmother to talk about? While my nainai would never actually say those exact words, but would’ve maybe remarked on how my hair looked better in a bun.

Reading this book makes me sad and happy and miss my family at the same time. It’s interesting how this book plays with the specific and the universal. While never using names, Jolley plays with the traditional story of a family inheritance and gives us the most unlikely of narrators, the grandmother. Stories nowadays are mostly narrated by teenagers, children, and people in the twenties. Through establishing the specifics of the story’s universe, Jolley makes room for the reader to be a part of the story as well.

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