The Syringa Tree began as a one-woman Broadway play, which won the 2001 Obie Award, and then flowered into a beautifully written novel. Most of Gien’s largely autobiographical story is set in apartheid South Africa, told from the perspective of Elizabeth, the daughter of English-speaking parents whose father is a partly Jewish doctor and whose mother is melancholy. The family bonds with their black servants like family, and even harbors the infant daughter of Elizabeth’s nanny—an illegal act that endangers their own safety. Elizabeth escaped her troubled homeland as a young adult, but her father aptly told her, “Every place is part of you . . . and you’re part of every place.” Symphony-like, The Syringa Tree is written in four parts, beginning with a long, slow-paced movement. But it climaxes with a heartrending yet hopeful ending after the dissolution of apartheid rule.


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