Monday, 25 July 2011

Book Review: The Mango Orchard by Robin Bayley

I remember the first time I had the feeling that somewhere, something was waiting for me, in a land I didn’t yet know.

So begins The Mango Orchard, Robin Bayley’s enthralling travel writing come family history adventure. At its heart lies an appreciation of the power of stories and storytelling. As a boy, Robin had listened enthralled as his grandmother told tales of Mexican adventures at the beginning of the twentieth century; of her father, Arthur ‘Arturo’ Greenhalgh, and his run-ins with bandits, bags of silver left beside a mango tree, and a narrow escape from the Mexican revolution. Like the best stories, these opened up new worlds of possibility to Robin, and posed unanswered questions. Were those bags of silver still there, hidden in the trunk of a mango tree? If Arturo had left in such a hurry, he must have left something of himself behind.

These stories stayed with him as he grew up and, when the opportunity of voluntary redundancy presented itself, he set out to follow in the footsteps of his great grandfather and discover the truth for himself. The Mango Orchard is a record of those travels, and the amazing discovery he makes in a small village in western Mexico. And soon the stories are turning full circle, driving new adventures, some even more amazing than the ones that started it all off.

The Mango Orchard is a compelling and readable tale that warms the heart and reminds us of the common humanity we share the world over. Bayley tells his parallel stories with wit and wide-eyed sense of adventure. He possesses an ear for dialogue and his writing captures the sounds and flavours of Latin American Spanish in a way that is easy to digest, yet gives the impression of being there in the midst of other languages and cultures.

The differences in culture are elucidated without Bayley needed to consciously express them; they come through in every word he writes, and in the situations he finds himself in. As he travels through New York, Guatemala, Colombia, and Venezuela, on route to Mexico, he encounters a series of situations and characters whose own stories and lives threaten to divert him from his quest. There’s the archetypal South American hotel that rents rooms to couples by the hour, and to tourists too poor to afford anywhere else by the night, in which Bayley finds himself lying awake to the sound of gunshot outside and a body landing on the roof above. There’s a wild drive in a ramshackle car that needs running repairs on a regular basis; a beautiful and mysterious Guatemalan girl with seemingly mystical powers. Families take him in with astounding generosity that is unimaginable in the UK.

But he presses on, and suddenly the mystery resolves itself. Towards the end, a conversation takes place between Robin Bayley, and one of his newly found relatives:

‘You know,’ I say, my arm round his shoulder, ‘the fantastic thing about being here is not only that you are all family, but that you’re all such great people too.’
‘Yes, but somos familia.’ We’re family.
‘I know that, but what I’m trying to say is that as well as that, you’re Buena gente.’ Good people.
He shakes his head in incomprehension. ‘Somos familia.’
Finally I see his point. We are family, punto. Nothing else matters.

More than anything else, this dialogue sums up the amazing journey of discovery that makes up The Mango Orchard. What is family? What does it mean to have a family? And how far will you travel in search of a family. These are the questions that are raised on every page, and tied throughout are the stories these families tell.

At times, character development is a bit slight and there are depths of the story that are not mined as fully as one might like. The critical reader may feel they wanted more background on events and clearer explanations of some of the events that take place, particularly surrounding Arturo's involvement in the Revolution. However, these are minor concerns and the overriding impression of The Mango Orchard is as a compelling and heartfelt expedition, a powerful case for valuing stories and storytelling,  and an amazing tale that demonstrates that the truth is often far stranger and more rewarding than fiction.

The Mango Orchard was first published by Preface, an imprint of Random House, in 2010. Edition shown is this first Hardback edition, which has since been replaced by a paperback version, published by Arrow Books, another imprint of Random House, in 2011. ISBN (HB) 9781848092235, (PB) 9781848092242. 303pp

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