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Review: Matthew A. Hamilton's The Wishing Tree

Matthew A. Hamilton’s The Wishing Tree, from Winter Goose Publishing, is a story from WWI that resonates with the pandemic and rise of right-wing fear as climate change destabilization forces millions across the globe to migrate. Hamilton’s novel is anchored by Valia Stepanyan, a fourteen-year-old Armenian girl full of promise, faith, and hope for the future, and as the Ottoman Empire deport Armenians, Valia is forced to face challenge after challenge as her world is turned upside down.

Hamilton puts Valia’s faith in conflict early on as she and her family begin to navigate a home that doesn’t want them there. “Marrying is a small price to pay to stay in Adana,” Valia’s friend tells her early on in the novel, but Valia and her family flee instead and find horror after horror on the weary road. Valia’s hopes are crushed as she witnesses and is a victim of, state-sanctioned violence against her people. Saabir, a Turkish officer, personifies the hate and violence and serves as the primary antagonist. His brutal obsession with Valia drives the novel’s primary conflict Valia and Saabir are on the move.

Hamilton’s pacing and terse style are appropriately bare in a brutal narrative. Valia’s character diminishes physically and emotionally into trauma, and she pins her hope on the wishing tree, an olive tree, at home, and the possibility of buying her own freedom with a coin given to her by her friend Yasmin that she swallows to keep secret, to keep safe. At each turn, hope is stripped away. Saabir looms in the shadows, eager to knock Valia into line. The violence is brutal, unrelenting, humiliating, and degrading.

The second half of the novel finds Valia engaged with Arab resistance fighters, Australians, and other western forces committed to fighting the Turks. Hamilton’s narrative clips along, buoyed by Kazim, a young man who saves Valia’s life and brings her to the Australian camp, and Father Eduard who fills in for Valia’s own father and offers her spiritual comfort and guidance. Valia’s compassion for a young boy, a Turkish prisoner named Zaki, nourishes Valia and drives her emotional and spiritual recovery after experiencing a lifetime’s worth of horror over a few short years.

Throughout The Wishing Tree, Valia’s faith is challenged and rewarded, though not in a transactional way. Early on it is clear Valia is ready to give up on God entirely, but as the novel moves through the hell of the Armenian genocide, Valia’s faith returns, like buds on an olive tree. A survivor, Valia’s mind and emotions recover only because of her faith and her spirituality.

Besides her faith, Valia’s intelligence also sets her apart in the novel. Early on it is her independence that attracts Turkish sadists, and later it is her keen command of language that affords her privilege among the Western forces. Valia’s spirit is fierce and bright and is felt in Hamilton’s prose which balances tense terseness with lyric beauty and hope.

Stephen Scott Whitaker is a member of The National Book Critics Circle. His poems have appeared in many journals including Fourteen Hills, Crab Creek Review, Cutbank, and Wraparound South. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press.

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