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The Private Lives of Trees
By Alejandro Zambra
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
I absolutely adore galleys. I've been in positions that granted me unique access to them for about a decade: I spent four years working at the Strand, one of the world's largest used bookstores, and the place in New York to find proofs, advance reader's editions, and galleys. That's where the love affair started, but after leaving the Strand, I moved on to work at Random House, where proofs and galleys burst from every shelf on every floor. There's something so exciting -- to me, at least -- about getting my hands on something before it's quite finished. Of course there's the hipster necessity of knowing about something before anyone else does (I live in Brooklyn, okay?), but it's more than that. For me it's a peek inside the process, a peeling back of the varnish to get down to where things are just a tiny bit messy still. Even when a book has already been released, reading it in a proof copy is still thrilling for me.
Over the summer I did some volunteering at Housing Works, the bookstore arm of an amazing nonprofit that works to help homeless people affected by HIV/AIDS. I noticed on my first day that the Housing Works bookstore boasts its own impressive shelf of galleys, and that's where I found The Private Lives of Trees. It's so tiny that I almost missed it, and then I assumed it was some kind of sampler, or a teaser maybe. But no: it is a complete novel(la?), weighing in at just 95 pages. It was to be published in June 2010 (which meant I had just under a month to revel in the "I read it before anyone else" glee), by Open Letter, a relatively new small press that exclusively publishes books in translation. I've been amazed by a few of their offerings already, including The Pets by Bragi Ólafsson, former bassist for the Sugar Cubes, and the second two volumes in the sensational Jonas Wergeland trilogy, The Conqueror and The Discoverer. So I knew I would be in good hands with this one.
And, of course, a book this tiny is another way that Open Letter is challenging American readers -- who says a novel has to be a certain length? Who says short pieces have to be clumped together and published in "weightier" collections? Who says you can't find just as much emotional depth and character development and soft, whisper-sweet language in a tiny slip of book than a grand, epic paperweight of a novel? Now, I admit that this is a bit of a strange reaction from me, as I am an avowed detester of short stories, which invariably leave me unsatisfied; but that should serve as evidence of this book's greatness. I knew I loved it almost from the first page, and when I was finished I didn't feel at all let down by its conciseness, nor did I truly want more.
What hooked me was, I think, the tone. Zambra reminded me immediately of Julio Cortázar, my absolute most favorite author. It's not a thematic resemblance, or even a stylistic one. It's textural. This may sound strange, but The Private Lives of Trees is so soft. I don't mean to be coy or vague; I simply don't know how else to describe it. It was as if each time I opened the book a hush descended around me, even sitting on my stoop in the middle of bustling Brooklyn, despite the hooligans and ambulances and skateboarders and dogs all braiding into their raucous cacophony. So: soft.
Also: slow. Another thing I hate is poetry, which forces you to read it with agonizing restraint in order to squeeze out every drop of meaning. Yet somehow that same demand from this book made me yield gladly. It has that intense focus and crisp beauty where you know that Zambra didn't waste a single word, and that each sentence must have taken a major struggle to hone to its glistening point. So again: slow. Sharp.
Should I discuss what this book is about? It matters, although also it doesn't. It's a small cast of characters: a wife, her ex-husband, her daughter, her new husband, his ex-girlfriend. A handful of teachers and relatives and schoolmates make cameos. The entire book, as befits its diminutivity, takes place in one night. The husband has put his stepdaughter to bed and now he waits -- with increasing anxiety the later it gets -- for his wife to come home from her art class. The author tells us three or four times (but I stand by what I said before: not one word wasted) that the book will end when either the wife comes home, or the husband decides for certain that she won't.
Such a slight premise! But there is so much beauty wrung from it. In less than 100 pages we move back and forth in time -- ten years into the past; twenty years into an imagined future. We learn so much about this little modern family, about dead parents and abandoned loves, about the different-colored walls in the small house, about cake and its role as an agent of fate, about the tending of a bonsai that begins as a semi-cruel gift and winds up becoming a sad symbol of life's lost potential.
I feel like I've said too much; this review is nearly as long as the book itself. It would be better for other readers, as I did, to approach this book knowing nothing at all; having, as I did, only the sneaking suspicion that Open Letter would not disappoint; and reading on revelatorily, growing more and more astonished with each soft, slow, sharp sentence.
Out of 10: 9.0