Secrets are revealed through old letters and a personal search in Palm Trees in the Snow, as they are in Possession: A Romance (the previous book reviewed). But that is where the similarity of the two stories ends.
Palm Trees is purported to be fiction, but in the Author’s Note readers learn that the novel was “inspired by real events” and informed by Luz Gabás’ father and grandfather’s stories. She writes, “Thanks to their memories, both spoken and written, I knew from a very early age of the existence of the island of Fernando Po and so many other things….” Yet, while the research about place and circumstances feels authentic – Spain’s Rabaltué and the African island – Gabás has difficulty lifting characters and their experiences off the page.
Palm Trees in the Snow is a big ambitious book that was recommended by friends. It attempts to describe Spain’s colonial period on Fernando Po, an island off the coast of Africa, first from a Spanish point-of-view and later the indigenous perspective. The story revolves around two very different brothers, their loves and their children, which makes it a bit of a complicated family saga seen through the eyes of one of the daughters. Unfortunately, Gabás’ characters seldom seem real, the storyline often feels flat, and her sex scenes read like Harlequin Romance. While Gabás has potential for a really good story, she could have used the help of an editor or maybe a reading of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter.
Osborne also sets out to discover family secrets. She succeeds in telling an insightful, page-turning tale. The biography unfolds during a similar African colonial period to that of Gabás’ story, although in this instance England and Kenya.
Like Gabás, Osborne is a granddaughter who discovers her link to a mysterious heritage when she was little more than a child. Idina Sackville was a contemporary of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham (Out of Africa and West with the Night, respectively) but this reference is for context and those book reviews can come another time. Idina Sackville was daring, “her scandals were manifold.” Idira’s behaviour so extravagant, shall we say, she was fictionalized into a Nancy Mitford character; she became Michael Arlen’s Iris Storm, and this year (2017), she appeared as Lady Idina Hay in Wilbur Smith’s War Cry, an adventure story set in post WWI Kenya. Osborne’s challenge was to dig beneath the colourful legend in search of the “whole” woman who was her great grandmother – the black sheep of the family, the woman behind the legend.
Gabás’ ambitious attempt to explore the colonial experience on both colonizers and colonized kept me turning pages despite its frequent textbooklike tone and shallowly-drawn characters; Palm Trees in the Snow is recommended with qualifications. Osborne, on the other hand, creates emotional involvement while her context of the social and cultural values of the time (in both England and Kenya) keeps her storyline focused on character and the pages almost turn themselves; I highly recommend The Bolter.
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