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The Jesse Tree, by Linda Hurcombe

07 February 2020

Peggy Woodford enjoys an atmospheric novel

“BE KIND to your parents though they don’t deserve it — remember they’re grown ups, a difficult stage of life.” Linda Hurcombe tells this multi-layered story through the eyes of Robin Swallow, rising 14 years old, intelligent, witty, and wise for her age.

Her father has disappeared, believed dead in action abroad; her American mother (nickname “Indeedy” from a phrase that she constantly uses: “Yes, indeedy”), decides to move Robin and her brother Zach plus their dog, Boddy, out of London to live in a “rural backwater where nothing ever happens” — except that such a lot does: a recent murder of the lord of the manor house near by, perpetrator currently unidentified; and, at a busy gypsy encampment, Robin’s getting to know young Summer Locke, a Roma who was a friend of the murder victim.

Summer takes Robin to see the amazing Jesse Tree painted on the manor house’s cellar ceiling; to view it properly they have to lie on the floor. “I saw a brightly coloured painted ceiling full of crowned human figures with lions and unicorns . . . surrounded by flowers and connected by a great vine-like stem that grew from the belly button of a sleeping figure. . . Even in the candlelight I could see the colours were as bright as a fairground carousel. . . Jesse Trees are depictions in art of the ancestors of Christ. . . Jesse is the father of David, King of the Jews. . .”

Hurcombe’s novel is beautifully written, with vivid but economical descriptions, and excellent dialogue that works for both adult and teenage readers. I was impressed by a remark in the Author’s Note: “Fiction needs to be realistic, unlike reality, which is often so bizarre as to be inconceivable.” But this novel also deals with the bizarre and the unusual, and makes the little-known world of the Romany Gipsy, Summer’s own family environment, vividly real.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

The Jesse Tree
Linda Hurcombe
Orphans Publishing £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

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