Reviewed by Amanda Hale
Ivy’s Tree, in the tradition of tragicomedy, is both laugh-out-loud humorous and extremely poignant. Wendy Burton’s debut novel uproots Ivy Birch from Vancouver and transplants her to Tokyo; a second emigration for the British-born war bride who fell in love with Jack Birch after his 1946 release from a Japanese war camp. Jack has recently died after 50 years by Ivy’s side.
Ivy's daughter, Cynthia, calls from Japan to pressure her mother into selling her house, packing her life into a small trunk, and flying to Tokyo to live with Cynthia, her husband Mikio, and their two boys.
This radical move at age 77 is negotiated bravely, with wit, honesty, and a deeply human vulnerability. You could say this is a story about the human values that uphold the fragile social structure of our time. It is the story of Ivy’s body and her sensibility, which we come to know intimately, thanks to a rare candour in her self-appraisal as an overweight, ageing woman with sagging skin, and “wattles that used to be her slight double chin.” She talks to us about her underwear (her “smalls”), about her flabby arms—“Does Judi Dench have flappy underarms? Does she wear an arm girdle?”—about her bath-floating breasts, and her sexual relationship with Jack, almost to the end.
When Ivy arrives in Tokyo on March 27, 2007, in a state of prolonged shock, she finds herself isolated, uncomfortable, unable to communicate with her grandsons, or with her daughter who is an extraordinarily curt woman who appears programmed by a sense of loveless duty. “If this were a hotel,” Ivy thinks as they show her to her tiny room, “she would hand over the tip and then they would leave.”
Neglected by everyone except her younger grandson, ten-year-old Benjiro, Ivy forms a sweet relationship with the boy as they giggle together through a stumbling language exchange. But she spends weeks alone in the apartment while Cynthia and Mikio work long hours to stay afloat in a city suffering the aftermath of a decade of economic crisis. “If I were a house-plant,” Ivy quips, “I’d be dead now!”
When she finally ventures outside, Ivy’s inner detective emerges. She gains access to the entry code, learns to negotiate the streets and becomes “a subway genius,” gets a fob key, and finally, when she has outraged her daughter by disappearing for four days, she gets her own cell phone, although Cynthia still punishes Ivy unmercifully, refusing to speak to her for days. Cynthia has already deposited a cheque for more than $789,000—proceeds of the sale of Ivy’s Vancouver home—in her own bank account. It is too late for Ivy to regain control of her life. But she continues her secret expeditions to Gardens and Museums, shops and cafés, reaching out for the kindness of strangers. She resolves frequently to “run away,” but her bursts of freedom and adventure are short-lived.
Ivy comforts herself with inner dialogues with Jack, imagining what he might say about her antics. She locates herself in Tokyo through a scrim of memory, comparing her discoveries with familiar places such as Stanley Park, English Bay, or her hometown of Aldershot in England. She is worn down by solitude; no-one to share her brief triumphs with; no common language with those who might listen.
During a visit to Mikio’s family, it becomes clear that Cynthia is not accepted by them; nor is her Number One Son who so resembles her, while Benjiro is blessed with his father’s looks, and temperament. Ivy has crocheted a fine length of fabric and presents it to Mikio’s grandmother in a symbolic gesture of peace, acknowledging the suffering of the Japanese in two world wars. It is a spontaneous act, just what is needed at that moment.
Burton skillfully weaves a rich backstory into Ivy’s stream-of-consciousness plot narration. But it is not so much the events of this novel that grip the reader. The power of the book is Ivy herself, a character whose process fascinates as she grows in acceptance of her narrowing life while expanding inwardly. The mending of her broken heart is a tour de force.
When the story dips around the middle, with repetitive tales of subway adventures and sight-seeing, readers will continue rivetted by Ivy, and with the intricate planting of herself into a new landscape, a new life for her remaining years. Through all the challenges of cultural change that Ivy faces, we are with her, rooting for this extraordinarily courageous woman who never gives up, and who is able to rise above the grief of widowhood while feeling it deeply, with wry humour.
Ivy fantasizes on a couple of occasions, but her idealizing is quickly undercut by the harsh reality in which we all are caught as individuals tempered by societal structures beyond our control. Ivy’s coming to terms is a triumph of the spirit. “Worn down by her solitude,” she has the wisdom, in the end, to accept without succumbing. Ivy knows, as Leonard Cohen says—“To keep our hearts open is probably the most urgent responsibility you have as you get older.”
Ivy's Tree is published by Thistledown Press
Bio: Amanda Hale’s 4th novel, Mad Hatter, was published by Guernica Editions in Fall 2019, and is available in paperback, e-book, and audiobook. www.amandahale.com