Tuesday 31 March 2020

How to Grow a Family Tree

How to Grow a Family Tree by Eliza Henry Jones (HarperCollins) PB RRP $19.99 ISBN: 9781460754955

Reviewed by Nikki M Heath

Stella is seventeen and in the last weeks of Year 11.  She is also watching her identity fall apart around her. As the book opens, Stella discovers that gambling addiction will force her adoptive family to move the seedy local caravan park. In the same week, Stella receives a mysterious letter from her birth mother.

Reading the first few chapters of How to Grow a Family Tree feels like sitting under the titular tree on the hottest days of the summer school holidays; slow, slightly uncomfortable and a little hazy. The reader gets to know Stella and her - at first, apparently harmless - quirks, like her obsession with self-help books. We are discomfited by her father’s gambling, her mother’s denial and her sister’s sleepwalking. 

A perfect storm of teenage angst, family tensions, uprooting and identity crisis develops narrative momentum in the second half of the book. The theme of sexual violence is opened gradually and with insight into the way rape fractures whole families.

The characters are diverse, flawed and very real, as is the unvarnished regional setting. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the author’s keen observations bring Stella’s world into clear view. 

This book is subdued in tone yet confronting in subject matter. In managing this balance, it forces the reader to challenge their own preconceptions and widen their perspective. A book that will stay with its young adult and adult readers for many years.

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