The Palaver tree serves as the heart of a community. It’s the place for discussion, decision-making, festive occasions, and the place for storytelling. In the hands of Wendy Unsworth, the Palaver tree becomes more than a literal tree. In her novel, The Palaver Tree, it becomes a figurative place, as well, for the characters in this suspenseful novel set in a fictional country in Africa. Literally, the tree is the gathering place for storytelling and decision-making. It also provides shade from the harsh sun and scalding temperatures in the poor landscape of a violent and unstable government. However, as this story goes from Cornwall and London to Africa, the characters must come together to communicate or all is lost.
The good-hearted and generous people in a tightly knit community in Cornwall seek to help the hopeless children in Africa. Two women of some means, Elly and Diane, are eager to help, when they hear about the Hope Foundation run by Gabriel Cole. In London, the poor and gullible Tiffany runs the foundation and only wants to be loved by her employer and lover, Gabriel. The poor girls, Promise and Beauty, in Gabriel’s service in Africa bring him more than tea. Gabriel becomes the all-encompassing evil force in this novel rich in its beautiful description of the African landscape and its wildlife.
The novel is heartbreaking in its characterization of vulnerable and defeated folks, yet it soars with hope as dedicated individuals come together to form their own version of the “Palaver tree” to tell their stories and make decisions.
It is in these individual stories and connections that the human spirit fights for survival against some pretty awful odds. Unsworth tells this story using a wide variety of relationships to express the defeats and triumphs we all experience through marriage, friendship, and professional associations. She effortlessly weaves her story, and despite the wide-ranging lives of all the characters, somehow they all manage to find the universal denominators to form unwavering bonds.
In the beginning, a politeness exists between the characters, which prevent them from going to the “Palaver tree” to compare notes about the evil Gabriel. There exists in the good characters an unwillingness to believe in the corruption of their bank accounts and hearts.
To me, that is the lesson from The Palaver Tree. We become stronger when we gather to communicate, decide, and encourage in order to survive the worst of ordeals.
Through the exceptional storytelling talent of Wendy Unsworth, it is easy to believe in the words of Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”