The Pain Tree by Olive Senior

The Pain Tree by Olive Senior
I picked up The Pain Tree at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto this past fall. It was recommended to me at the Cormorant Books tent, and always happy to pick up more Canlit and Caribbean lit, I couldn’t say no! Olive Senior is a prolific writer, having published many volumes of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and even children’s books. Her short story collection The Pain Tree is her latest work and was the winner of the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (previous winners include Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings).

There is often a lot of attention given to young, talented authors who write a bestseller or award-winner. We love to talk about them and how young and how gifted they are. But there is something to be gained from a writer with years of experience and practice under her belt, and that is epitomized in Senior. Her writing is thoughtful, each line measured carefully to carry across the experiences of the young, old, wealthy, poor, and all types of Jamaicans in between from 1930 to 1960. She captures the truth of life with humour and insight which remind me of Austen and is likely one of the reasons I enjoyed her collection so much. The Pain Tree was a wonderful read following my great love of James’ epic. I can’t help but hold the two in comparison for how they both capture the lives of different people in their own language, Senior doing so more succinctly and with precision.

In the title story “The Pain Tree” the overarching theme of the book is set by a young white woman named Lorraine, who returns to her old family house and remembers the woman who raised her and one of the servants of the family, Larissa. There she remembers the pain tree, which Larissa explained to her long ago:

“Let us say, Lorraine, I feel a heavy burden, too heavy for me to bear, if I give the nail to the tree and ask it to take my burden from me, is so it go. Then I get relief.”

The tree does not discriminate and even Lorraine gets to stick a nail in for relief of the burden that is her past. Each story in the collection is ultimately about the releasing of pain; catharsis by airing complaints or confessions. All manner of classes and education are featured, from the wizened matriarchs and patriarchs of the village to young girls sent away to the city or far-flung Canada. Each person has their own burden and own story being released to you through a new form of pain tree – a printed book of stories.

Among my favourites, is “Coal” which is about a boy called Vincent whom others call Boy. His name unknown to them since he never spoke and they considered him dumb. Ultimately, the story is about the punishment of the upper class for taking his help for granted, and their realization of it. Their shame yet he forgives them. “Coal” is like a modern folk story, with lessons and a touch of the mystic.

I like “The Country Cousin” for all the ways in which it is the opposite. Mrs. Fennel tells you the story of Rose, her niece from the country, a member of the family of which she is deeply ashamed and intent on separating herself from forever. Mrs. Fennel exerts all efforts to be the ultimate lady to the detriment of her husband, children, mother-in-law, and especially Rose. Senior writes Mrs. Fennel with Austen-level accuracy and wit, causing you to feel disgusted and laugh in turns. She is far from the only character who is questionable in morals and motives. There is much fun to be had in the likes of Mr. Everett’s fear of television from “Boxed-In” and Mrs. Bailiff’s adopted children in “The Goodness of My Heart.” Surrounding these stories are the intersections of shadeism, classism, sexism, and homophobia which Jamaican society is built upon. And as you sit with the cruel, the selfish and the cunning you realize that all things are in perspective.

At some moments it feels like a couple of the short stories drag on. Parts which feel unimportant are mostly dropped and never brought up again like the hot peppers Mrs. Fennel is so against for some reason. There is also confusion over characters’ actions. Why do they do this? Why did they say that? In many ways, it’s the same mystery of encountering random people in the world. But there is a deep yearning which every character shares and propels the novel on and on. I found myself reading through The Pain Tree faster than I wanted and actually had to pace myself. It is a wonderful look at the way others make us and break us and definitely a recommendation for any short story lover.