The Rain Tree: a memoir by Mirabel Osler

Review by Ishita Mandrekar

‘This isn’t an autobiography but a paean to friendship. Janus faced, looking both ways – love and death, ends and beginnings…’ says Mirabel Osler in the preamble to her memoir. And that’s exactly what it is. The reader who approaches The Rain Tree expecting a traditional autobiography is in for a surprise – and Osler is full of surprises. With the dexterity of a seasoned storyteller, Osler weaves her tales with vivid details, so that as you follow her through war torn London, Thailand and Corfu, you see the ‘the shafts of searchlight catching glimpses of anchored barrage balloons – silver whales floating overhead’ (p. 26), taste the ‘tiny dried prawns, diced lime and peanuts ’ (p. 121) and feel the thick green skin of olives freshly picked from the grove.

This is a book about life and death, about travel, gardening and food, friends and family, but above all this is book of stories. Osler’s life story reads like a prodigious novel studded with poetic descriptions and witty wisdom. At times it is philosophical and funny, at others it is pragmatic and melancholic. Beginnings and ends feature prominently in The Rain Tree. The book begins with Osler telling us about her choosing an environmentally friendly burial shroud in order to spare her children the hard decisions that follow death or from the guilt – ‘If they don’t send me off with fanfare, or in theatrical splendor.’ (p. 1)  The first chapter describes her garden in Shropshire – a joint project with her husband, Michael. In the third essay titled – ‘That Loathsome Centipede, Remorse’ – Osler reconstructs stories of her parents’s divorce, her mother’s second marriage, Stella Bowen’s (her mother’s best friend) life with the poet Ford Maddox Ford- all through a collection of old letters. There are reflections on love and its many disillusionments, the dynamics of relationships between men and women and ‘ the tangibility’ of sentimental mementos especially love letters (p. 55). In the remaining chapters Osler describes the highs and lows of her life – a happy marriage, the birth of a son and a daughter, the adoption of a much loved third child, the slow passing of her mother and the sudden death of her sister, Cordelia. But in the last chapter we are brought back to her garden – not the grand affair fostered by her and her husband, but one that is allowed to grow wildly in her new home in Ludlow. This is a more philosophical introspection on life and aging, a discerning of the subtle differences between solitude and loneliness, of the need to just speak and be heard.

In recent times there has been a slow but reemerging trend in storytelling and the oral narrative. Mirabel Osler’s The Rain Tree reinstates the values of both by epitomising personal storytelling. There are times when reading the book you get a distinct feeling of sitting by the fire listening to your Gran recounting old stories. Personally for me the book is a celebration of a tradition preserved by storytellers, especially women since times immemorial – a life time of wisdom bundled up in stories for the generations to come. An heirloom for those to follow. In thinking about how this memoir relates to the wider field of contemporary women’s writing Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde comes specifically to mind but more recent would be the  fiction of Kate Atkinson which draws on fictionalised autobiography and personal storytelling – Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Life after Life; Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell The Wolves I’m Home and Susanna Jones’s When Nights Were Cold.

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