Adrian is the son of a black Caribbean woman and an Irish immigrant father and is blessed with the pale skin and European features to allow him social mobility in the rigidly hierarchical society of twentieth-century Caribbean life. He falls in love but is offered the opportunity to improve his social standing, and thus the rest of his life, if he can suppress his heart’s desire and decide with his head. Will he choose Julia, the only woman he has ever really loved, and settle for being an overseer, or will he opt for the plantation-owner’s daughter, Alice Mills, who could provide him with the social standing he has always dreamed of?
Only God Can Make a Tree is a short book at less than 150 pages, and it is a quick read both because of its length and because of the writing style. It’s written very simply and is very much a book where it tells you what’s happening and what characters are feeling rather than showing you through metaphors or flowery language. This makes it seem like it’s not a very well-written book as you can’t easily connect with the characters and the plot is just laid out in front of you. It took a while to get used to how it was written, but its blunt, on the nose approach to this story did make it easy to read and sometimes engaging.
For such a short book it covers a lot of time and different characters lives. Adrian is the main character but as the choices he makes have knock on effects onto the people around him, you get snippets from other characters points of view as they struggle to deal with the fallout of his actions. The latter half of the book spans more time as Adrian fathers’ children and they grow up and have to live with Adrian being their father and what that can mean for them.
Adrian is a character that’s equal parts infuriating and sympathetic. While his actions are his own, and they are often reckless and hurt women who do love him, he is boxed in by the hierarchical society and has limited options if he desires to climb the social ladder. Adrian has high aspirations in a society that won’t really allow him to have those aspirations. He is a man that’s almost trapped between two societies because of his parentage, he can pass for white a lot of the time, but at the same time many white people will never see him as anything but black and will treat him accordingly. There’s also how Adrian appears to be destined to make similar mistakes to his own father, and all the rum that’s available is not good for any of the characters.
The sections about life in Saint Kitts and Nevis in the twentieth century were interesting. White, often English, people still owned the cotton and sugar cane plantations but now they pay people to work the land, albeit very cheaply. The former slaves are now labourers. As not a lot of time has passed since the abolition of slavery, there’s still some tension as the white plantation owners believe that the black people are still savages deep down. Often the glimpses of Caribbean society and how it works were more interesting than Adrian’s life. Though that being said, how Caribbean society works had a direct effect on Adrian and how is life panned out so the intersection between the two was also interesting.
I read Only God Can Make a Tree in less than two hours but I’m not sure how long this story will stick with me. It’s a concise family saga that gives a unique insight into post-slavery Caribbean and how one man’s aspirations can have long-lasting and unexpected effects. 2/5.