I had never read anything by Olive Senior before, but I had heard of her, and I knew she was a good writer, so picking up The Pain Tree was an easy decision for me. As was recommending her, and gushing about her publisher Cormorant Books on the radio last week.
If you’re looking for a collection of well-rounded, well-written, and well thought out stories, this book is for you. As a fan of this genre, I’m always excited to see how different authors have put their collections together. With some books I’ve read, it’s clear the stories were thrown together to just get the book published. Many authors write short stories sporadically over the years, so sometimes these collections are simply put out once the author has written enough to fill a book. The Pain Tree is different, because you can tell the stories are carefully curated to evoke particular emotions in the reader:personally, I felt wonderment at reading them.
The stories vary widely in tone, theme, and perspective. One story is told from the view of an old man fearing the progress of his community, scared that the future will punish him for his dealings with the devil during his lifetime. Another is told from the perspective of a woman returning to her childhood home, tearful and full of regret after realizing how poorly she treated the house keeper that raised her from birth. One of my favourite stories, “The Country Cousin” details the fairy tale life of a young woman brought into a household, taken advantage of, and then kicked out again, but landing in the lap of luxury with a rich, loving husband.
Some of the pieces have a fun, even supernatural storyline attached to them, while many others are quite somber. All the stories deal with serious issues; slavery, sexual assault, gender politics, even class discrimination are dealt with in the 190 pages of The Pain Tree. So why did I feel ‘wonderment’ at reading this? Senior is an amazing writer, drawing us into a world where we don’t feel entirely comfortable, but still enjoying our experiences within it. Race seems to be at the forefront of many issues in the U.S. these days, so reading a book that explores the complicated relationship between different classes, races, and genders is a very timely and worthwhile activity for us all to participate in.