In the summer of 2005, I accidentally discovered the novel that changed my life as a writer. I wandered into an English W H Smith to check out the buy-two-books-get-one-free deal, and picked up a novel with these words on the cover: “A story about love, loss—and surviving them both.”
The novel was The Catalpa Tree, and the author was Irish writer, Denyse Devlin. Seven years later The Catalpa Tree remains one of my favorite novels, and the hero, Oliver Sayle, still lives in my head.
When the reader meets Oliver, he’s waiting to tell his best friend’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Jude, that she’s been orphaned. Sitting in the office at Jude’s Catholic boarding school, squirming as the senior nun watches across the desk, Oliver is trying not to feel intimidated. And he’s desperate for a cigarette. That was the moment I fell in love.
Oliver is Jude’s legal guardian. They’re always been close, but everything changes once they’re thrown together through grief and tragedy. Oliver has his own family and a young son, but Jude has no one else. From the beginning you know these two people are tied in a bond that is unique and isolating and not always healthy. Over the next seven years, they test each other constantly. The push and pull of their messy, entangled relationship creates an emotionally gripping page-turner. You cheer, you cry, and when you put the novel down, you have to know where these characters are ten, fifteen, twenty years into the future.
And this is why I Iove The Catalpa Tree: Ms Devlin peels back the layers of relationships, taking the reader deeper and deeper into every twist and turn, every conflict. Stephen King talks about excavating a plot; The Catalpa Tree taught me how to excavate the emotional lives of characters. When I discovered The Catalpa Tree, the world stopped, my life went on hold, and I thought, “This is how I want to write.”
I reread the novel a few years ago and tried to be more critical. I couldn’t. Once again I was swept up in the turmoil of Jude and Oliver’s relationship.
I no longer have the copy of The Catalpa Tree I bought in England. It fell apart like my favorite Dr. Martens. Now I have two copies: one that’s signed and sits on my desk, and a copy I graciously lend out—but only if people promise to return it unharmed.
The Catalpa Tree is published by Penguin Ireland and available in paperback and e-book through Amazon.com. If you like women’s fiction with a darker edge—it’s the best book you haven’t read.