The Banyan Tree

( 5 )


Covering the eighty-plus years of the life of Minnie O’Brien,The Banyan Tree is a rich saga of rural Ireland in the twentieth century. In prose as lushly layered as the land it describes, Nolan lovingly details the triumphs and tragedies of this spirited woman, who struggles to keep body and soul, as well as her modest hopes, alive. While her three grown children have long since moved away, she is determined to keep her family’s farm from the tightening grip of her unscrupulous neighbor, in the hope that one day ...

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Covering the eighty-plus years of the life of Minnie O’Brien,The Banyan Tree is a rich saga of rural Ireland in the twentieth century. In prose as lushly layered as the land it describes, Nolan lovingly details the triumphs and tragedies of this spirited woman, who struggles to keep body and soul, as well as her modest hopes, alive. While her three grown children have long since moved away, she is determined to keep her family’s farm from the tightening grip of her unscrupulous neighbor, in the hope that one day her youngest will return to claim what is rightfully his. Weaving from the gentle world of Minnie’s youth to the harder realities of the present, this sage and soulful story pays homage to a feisty individual spirit as well as a rich collective past.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Richly–even baroquely–told…. Nolan writes with verve.”–The New York Times Book Review

“Nolan’s soaring language and lilting, alliterative style suffuse…the book with a sense of the miraculous.”–The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A work of genius. Everything in this charming story simmers with life…. Unflaggingly engaging.”–The Christian Science Monitor

“Nolan…makes the ordinary extraordinary. In his hands, a simple tale of a countrywoman’s steadfast strength becomes an elegiac, enthralling epic; funny, poignant, and as earthy as the Irish sod it’s set on.”–BookPage

“Nolan is a stunning writer.”–The New York Review of Books

“Nolan manages to make a familiar story of rooted parents and rootless children seem sparklingly original.”–The Sunday Times (London)

“Nolan’s memorable narrative is a brilliantly observed marvel of atmosphere and humanity, as sophisticated as it is simple and ripe with rich, earthy, inventive language. Few novels will beguile as much.”–Image Magazine

“Told with considerable warmth…. A novel like this one…is to be valued for its celebration of the way in which the imagination changes things.”–The Irish Times

“Nolan . . . mesmerizes us from the opening passage . . . his descriptive prowess reminds one of Joyce as he takes this simple family story and breathes into it clarity and understanding.” –The Boston Globe

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Nolan's sensitive prose and Shaw's rum-raisin voice, which does so well in capturing the story's hardscrabble lives and tender diversions, combine to make this audio reading a consummate achievement. Nolan (Under the Eye of the Clock) tells the life of Minnie O'Brien, an Irish woman whose affectionate husband dies relatively young, leaving her to care for the family's farm. Their three children all seek their fortunes elsewhere, but Minnie holds out hope that her youngest, Frankie, will return to work his parents' land. It's for him that Minnie struggles to run the farm and keep it from Jude Fortune, her avaricious neighbor. Focusing on the simple trials and pleasures of pastoral life, Nolan imbues his characters and scenes with wit and vitality. Actress Shaw (Persuasion, etc.) gives the reading an Irish lilt, easily rendering Nolan's Joycean flourishes and slipping into a subtle brogue in the book's sparse dialogue. Although eventually Minnie discovers a family secret and, later, Frankie races to make it home before his mother's death, it's really in simpler things, such as a hypnotic description--and narrating--of churning butter, that this book's magic lies. Based on the Arcade hardcover (Forecasts, Feb. 7). (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
...this new novel is the work of a mature genius...the book is unflaggingly engaging largely because of Nolan's rebellious style.
The Christian Science Monitor
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385720687
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/12/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Nolan is also the author of Under the Eye of the Clock, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. He died in 2009.

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Read an Excerpt


That churn came out once a week, usually on a Friday. Big brown crocks of thickening cream stood there waiting for the fray. A great black kettle watched for its turn as it filibustered on the hot stove in the kitchen, while out in the drab dairy Minnie O'Brien fussed as she made ready to bring about a miracle.

The churn echoed in emptiness when she set it centre stage on the cold cement floor. A round-bellied barrel it was, its staves held together by four iron hoops. Eight days had passed since it was last used; its insides now waited their hot and cold baptism.

When Minnie felt that the churn was scrubbed enough, she set to next to sweeten its porous wood. At hand lay a bunch of freshly plucked hazel leaves, and those she thrust down inside it. Fetching then that big black kettle, she poured its boiling water in on top of the leaves. Scalded so, the leaves released their nutty sweet scent and the hot wood of the churn absorbed it into its druidic, dark drum.

Her hazel wand waved, Minnie disposed of the limp leaves before shocking the churn with, this time, icy cold water from the old spring well. Three white pails full it took to cool down the steaming hot wood, three whole pails full she used to freeze the churn in readiness for its sacramental rotations.

Nursing still their helium harvest the cataracted crocks waited, still playing their stoic games, but the moment they were lifted they yielded up their booty, listening in awe as their clotted cream dropped ploppingly down into the cold, damp coffin of dankness. There it lay fooling itself that it might yet escape, but then down slapped the lid, snap went the clamps, and up the churn was hoisted onto its stand. There in total darkness the cream lay while the churn hung where it swung, while Minnie geared herself up for the imponderables ahead.

Eventually, her state of play ready, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows, her feet planted firmly, her children somewhere within earshot, she gripped hold of that handle and sent the engine of the churn Sundaying into life.

Plumbing its cargo the churn end-over-ended, the billygoat of its sum slopping and slapping against either end. Twisting the handle to the rhythm of an old O'Brien chant the churn and churner gradually built up speed until the ginseng was singing:

'Going to Connecticut, Going to Connecticut, Going to Connecticut.'

There was, she knew, no great need for any member of the O'Brien family to emigrate, but with her hand still holding a loose grip of the handle, Ireland's long-ago potato famine but a memory, she activated the humbug until she had the rhythm reduced to:

'Conn-ect-i-cut, Conn-ect-i-cut, Conn-ect-i-cut.

A sense of lonesomeness equal to the evidence of an unkindness of ravens usually, and for no obvious reason, crept over her every time she churned, and it was then that she'd be glad to rope in her children, their complaining an antidote to her sense of foreboding. 'Here Brendan, you take a turn,' she'd say as she slid her hand away, and when properly humoured off he'd set on his drum-drum route to Connecticut. Sheila, when her turn came, always spat in her hand before she gripped the handle and, being a girl, and to prove her worth, she'd never ever give in till her mother shouted 'Whoa'.

By then the helium would be knocking for release, and it was the littlest of the three children who'd be chosen for the special thumb-task. Lifting him up, his mother would stand him on an old wooden box from where he could stretch in to place his thumb on the silver escape-valve. His strength was never sufficient to depress the button, so his mother would place her thumb securely on top of Frankie's and, strengths combined, the little boy'd cheer as gas whistled from the churn. Minnie loved her littlest so, and making much of his miracle she'd hug him before lifting him down to the floor.

No time to let up. It'd be her turn again to grip the handle and set the churn in motion. Her right hand would grow weary and then her left as her journey upturned and turned up. Relief, though, would dawn when on stopping to examine the lid's little porthole window she'd discover that the cream had cracked and, yes, there they'd be, the little crumbs of butter sticking precariously to the round glass.

That would set her to change her tempo, for now she had to become as midwife to the crock of gold within the churn. Her hand rocking the cradle, she'd heel the churn over and back, see-sawing it until the butter gathered together into an island plashing around on a lake of blue-white milk.

Sesame-like she'd remove the lid, her eye taking in her harvest. Then, her hands washed, she'd lift up nuggets of the butter and hit them slap against the upturned and slanted lid. Milk hidden inside the butter would steal lava-like away and spill back down to swell the milk in the churn. She'd never stop until her hoard of butter was ready to be dropped into a crock of fresh water. There it'd bob up and down as she kneaded and pummelled it, her children all the while keeping her supplied with ever more spring water. It was only when the water remained clear as nectar that her job was done, and even then she'd have to salt the butter to each one's taste.

The day's churning would be drawing near its climax, but Minnie would have yet to factotum the job. Cutting off a portion from that butter mound she, like a juggler, would toss her prize from one butter spade to another, slapping and slipping it, plopping and gripping it, until the golden butter was shaped to her mind's fancy and ready to be nudged onto a dark-green platter. There in its innocence it'd wait until, holding a spade pen-fashion, she'd inscribe her name upon it in a pattern of dots and dashes.

Fridays of yore worried, but seldom now. The dairy was the location of those far-flung human endeavours. It was still there, but now its whitewashed walls grew seas of black mildew. The big brown crocks which had once held cream no longer held butter's promise; now they were laden down with the years' rusted junk. Voices, the young voices which once complained of tired turning of the handle, were silent now, flown to the four winds. Panicking behind the dairy door the churn, the focal point of those distant Fridays, crouched yonder in its place. The hoops which held its varnished staves were still there, holding it intact. The plughole piece of wood, the spigot, starved of moisture and now dry as cork, slept senile-stressed sleep underneath the dairy table. The two handles which used to loiter waiting their part in the lifting of the churn hung down in idleness, no need now their hinting strength. Yes, the barrel still stood, but only just. Weary from the years' tomboy-thinking, it yet managed to hold its body together so that the round lid would have something to sit upon. Only the lid played God: there it sat upon its frame, a cobweb hiding its porthole window. Still waiting for the pressure of his thumb, its silver escape-valve damned well watched the door to see if the child might return to train his finger once again upon its button and allow it to whistle.


Minnie O'Brien, the star performer of those long-ago dairy miracles, was now but caretaker to this house and farm. Just like the air which stymied here, she too spent her waking hours in waiting. Nothing mattered but that the smoke would curl from her chimney during every daylight hour and that come nightfall a light would give off gumption in its beckoning from her kitchen window. Minding her minefield, she vexed her days. Hers was a hyphenated status, for her husband, Peter, slept now beneath the single yew up there in the village cemetery. His wait was indeed similar to hers, for never an hour passed by that he could unclench his teeth, for even in death he sensed the danger of allowing the yew's roots to steal into his mouth to water themselves from the trough where his tongue used to lie.

Weathering the years, the widow woman stood today leaning against the Snowcem-ed white wall. The relics of the old clematis still clung here to its fractured frame. Minnie played games as her mind set about remembering the morning when she asked her new husband to help her move the plant from its former site beside the turfshed to this hump of ground running alongside the new wall in front of the house. Peter had his doubts that it would take to its new bolthole. This morning her ears could hear again the ping of his spade in the early morning stillness. 'Here love, catch a holt of that,' his voice came back, and now touching the very leaves and tendrils of the plant her eyes undid time as they examined the blossom purpling there before her.

Pondering on her lean life now she left her place sideways to the wall and set off on her daily patrol of her land. She owned five fields in all, none of them special, none but the one in which the giant oaks clumped. The stumps of four of them, blackened by nature, stunted there still while to their right flourished four more, their branches strangling the skies with their canopy of conceit. Peter had been the surgeon who cut down the four oaks. He needed furniture for his new house, since the nest egg, the sovereigns willed to him by an old uncle, had been holed badly in the pursuit of his dream. But the oaks didn't figure in today's pilgrimage, neither did the sundry memories associated with the sour grass which grew around their roots. No, this sally was to find out at first hand if her gate had kept out the big foreign bullocks from loafing around her prize field.

Not able to stand the pressure any longer, Minnie had given in to her neighbour's offers and let four fields of grazing to the farmer on the other side of the mearing ditch. Jude Fortune, the widow of Michael J., had for ages had her designs on the old woman's place, but four fields were not what she was after: she wanted the run of the entire holding and then she could keep out that Protestant fellow, the man to whom Minnie each year sold her one field of meadow.

Swallowing up her neighbour's five fields into her own vast stretch of land was Jude Fortune's unspoken aim, but four years had now slipped by and her cattle had never once got a chance to graze in the field where words and wonders once twined together. Jude's resolve was durable and year after year she suggested the actual terms to her renewing the lease, but her pumice stone had minimal effect on the wodjous woman, Mrs Minnie O'Brien.

Today, then, was but another day at the battlements for Minnie. She had laid her groundwork the very day when, upon her instructions, her solicitor gave the go-ahead to Jude Fortune's leasing of four of the five fields. Down she went that May day to check out if the gate to the special field was closed, and not even satisfied with it being bolted she set about tying it. The bolt was already homed into its tunnel in the old railway sleeper but she tied it nonetheless. The thick strand of wire was hard to manoeuvre; her hands certainly felt the strain. She tried to imagine the cattle's strength as maybe rising on each other they might be forced against the gate, and so with that in mind she threaded the wire through the hole in the bolt, twanked it around the armiture, yellowed it around the plank before coaxing it back towards herself so that she could set about twisting the two ends together. 'Musha then, the Holy Spirit himself'd not get in nor get out through that gate,' she thought, and smiling to herself she stood there sizing up her handiwork.

Now Minnie could dream on. The four big oaks stood high and haughty; as for the grass growing around their feet, well, the tufts could be mowed just like the rest of the meadow and when mixed with the red poppies and white clover the coarse grass could then turn sweet — only the baking sun was needed. Thus was her thinking that May day, and when it came to the question of what to do with the meadow she somehow felt in her gut that George Hamilton would, under the wasps' sting, come in and take it so that it wouldn't be left on her hands.

The sun which shone down on her as she leaned on the white wall was now higher in the heavens and hotter on her back. She pulled along though, for her gate held a note longer than did her lungs. Her breathing was coming faster by the time she neared the iron gate, but when she saw what was there inside it and gazing out through its bars her heart almost stone dropped. 'Musha will you look, after all my time and years of trouble,' she thought, and the big round solemn eyes of the cattle gazed on her in rapt attention. Her eyes swept about her, searching for the dog, but he was off the far side of the third field trying to raise rabbits for his own excitement. Minnie hadn't the puff with which to whistle, so, trumpeting her hands around her mouth, she called out the dog's name and waited until he came bounding through a batch of thistles.

Ranting and raving, she urged the dog to get behind the bullocks, but the untrained urchin was wacky enough to keep attacking from the front. The cattle galloped rebelliously, the dog circling before them, but they, the gung-ho foreigners, were but having high jinks. Five times, at least, they galloped past the gap in the hedge where that tree was tackled by the storm last November. A big ash tree cobbled with tons of ivy was brought down by the gale force winds, and the fencing which she herself had done the moment the tree was cut up had held the bearna baol unbreached till now. But strealing along, half trotting, her wish today was to force those cattle back out through the broken-down fence. With every last breath she shouted until one big fellow burst back to where he belonged, and his ten playmates then followed suit.

War had broken out between the bumsteers and the guardian of the field where the line of history had been conceived. Secondguessing now she, the Fenian woman, had to mend her fences. Soldiering on, she found branches and bushes and then like a crow she hit-or-missed until the gap was newly darned. By now, though, her old face was burning and her tired senses dithered from the cattle one moment to the whereabouts of Frankie the next.

'I'll go on as far as the river and then double back to see if they have forgotten the taste of my meadow,' she thought, but on reaching the rut between the fourth and fifth fields she found that last night's downpour had put a fillip of water struggling there. She stood for an age looking at the little trench and then, her breasts sagging, her legs slightly buckling, she gathered her skirt and made ready to jump. Pilate would have hopped it blindfolded, Peter would've stepped across as though it wasn't even there, in her heyday she'd have skipped across it, but that was then and this was now; now it took all her resolve. Her take-off was sudden when it came — the feet thieved the air and down they landed. It was only a little jump, a mind-over-matter jump, but as she walked towards the river now she smiled the schooled smile of a woman.

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Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Christopher Nolan's remarkable first novel The Banyan Tree.

1. The novel's opening chapter is a narration of Minnie at work on her weekly butter churning. How does this chapter introduce the reader to the mind of Minnie O'Brien, to the story's main concerns, and to the author's idiosyncratic prose style? What is the significance of ordinary domestic detail in this novel?

2. It has been said of Christopher Nolan that "he plummeted into language like an avalanche, as if it were his one escape route from death—which, of course, it was. He had been locked for years in the coffin of his body, unable to utter. When he found words he played rapturously with them, making them riot and lark about, echoing, alliterating and falling over one another. . . . Nolan constantly subverted and remade idiom" (John Carey, Preface to Under the Eye of the Clock, New York: St. Martin's Press 1987, p. ix). What pleasures and difficulties does Nolan's unique use of language present to the reader? What is unusual about his verb usage? What are the other notable elements of his writing style?

3. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a banyan tree is an East Indian fig tree whose branches send out shoots that grow down to the soil and root to form secondary trunks. Why has Nolan chosen this image for the book's title? To what does the metaphor of The Banyan Tree refer? How is it being used in the following quotation: "She thought as she chewed and chewed as she thought, and every time she swallowed her banyan tree grew in desperation. . . . As she savoured it The Banyan Tree sent down more roots and the moment they hit the floor up sprang three children, her three children, playing a game of snap-apple this Hallowe'en in September" [p. 145]?

4. In Irish fiction the Catholic Church has traditionally played a large and sometimes cruelly repressive role. How important is the church in Minnie's life? What effect, if any, does religion have upon her sexuality? How does she feel when her eldest son decides to become a priest?

5. Carried across the threshold by Peter, Minnie is described as a new bride, "hunted down by nature" [p. 65]. At Sheila's birth, the narrator tells us that the new baby "curled her toes in readiness for a life of only second-class importance" [p. 122]. Do these examples imply that being born female in Minnie's world limits a woman's potential for happiness and self-realization? Does the fact that Minnie's neighbor Jude Fortune, an example of an ambitious rather than a passive female, comes to such an unhappy end support that theory?

6. Jude Fortune plays a powerful role in the story as the antagonist of Minnie's deepest wish—to retain ownership of the five fields for Frankie's return. What sort of a woman is Jude, and how are her values set in opposition to Minnie's? We're told, "The widow Fortune thought like a farmer but grafted like a whore" [p. 172] and "To her there was no such thing as love" [p. 171]. Is Jude's love of money and Minnie's love of the land used to draw attention to two very different spiritual conditions in these women?

7. Many important plot details in The Banyan Tree are only hinted at within the text. We're told that Jude Fortune's father, "the bluebottle of her childhood, had infested her every struggling dream. . . . Jude's reality lay somewhere between a father's commerce and a husband's love" [p. 171]. Is this hint meant to supply an explanation for Jude's behavior as an adult? Later in the story, Peter O'Brien's grandson reveals that he is Nuala Lynam's grandson. Earlier, we are told that Nuala had put her baby up for adoption at his birth. Is it correct to assume that the young man knows who his grandfather is, and who Minnie is? Why is the author vague in these descriptions?

8. Why does Minnie fix her hopes on Frankie's return? What effect does his late arrival have on her? Is he an admirable character? Does it appear that Minnie doesn't love her other two children as much as she loves Frankie? Do the circumstances of Frankie's conception make him an especially beloved child?

9. Near the end of her life, Minnie reflects on her children: "One set out as a priest and came home an old man, one set out as a boy and never came back at all, and his girl set out to nurse and now she's her own best patient" [p. 329]. Does Minnie have a happier disposition than any of her children? Is she more at peace with the choices she has made?

10. Minnie's two sons leave home early in life, but while Brendan sends letters and money, Frankie cuts his ties more ruthlessly. What motivates their actions and their seeming desire to stay away from Ireland? Are they trying to escape their family, or is it the farm and its responsibilities that are too much of a burden? Could the novel be an exploration of a generation's abandonment of rural life?

11. Thinking of Peter, Minnie says, "Aye indeed the mousetrap caught me a good man, a good honest man" [p. 17]. Is Peter as honest as Minnie thinks he is? What are Peter's best qualities? Why does he keep the knowledge of his heart disease from his wife and family? When Minnie finds a picture entitled "your baby boy Peter" in his coat pocket years after his death [p. 326], does she realize Peter's dishonesty? Does she connect the visit of Nuala Lynam's grandson, who is "the livin' image" [p. 335] of her son Frankie, with Peter's secret?

12. Much of Minnie's emotional life is lived waiting for the postman and for Frankie's return: "This game of waiting was murder on the heart and tinder-boxed the brain" [p. 329]. Sheila also waits, in thrall to her rich and wandering husband Luke Green. Does this theme of waiting point to a problem of passivity, or of disappointed love, in the lives of these women?

13. Looking at the generation of exiles from Ireland—the alcoholic priests Brendan O'Brien and Harry Hope, the rootless Frankie, the Irish-speaking Pat from Donegal, who seems to be dying of AIDS, the prostitute who enlists Frankie's help with Pat—does it appear that these characters are living hopelessly unhappy lives, or merely normal ones? Is their discontent directly related to their exiled condition? How does their discontent differ from Minnie's? Are all hopes doomed to fail, for the rooted and wandering alike?

14. Christopher Nolan has been disabled from birth, and in his memoir Under the Eye of the Clock, he refers to himself as "birth brain-damaged, but curiously, though seldom recognized, intellectually normal" [p. 4]. How might such a disability affect an author's point of view, the things he notices and cares about with greatest intensity? Does the physical world perceived by the five senses appear with greater emphasis in Nolan's writing? Does the fact that he typed out the book with his "unicorn stick" seem to have affected the book's style or structure?

15. The story of The Banyan Tree is a simple one, focused as it is upon the memories and experiences of a single character. How does Nolan's exuberant use of language transform the apparent simplicity of the story? If you have read James Joyce's Ulysses, which follows the thoughts and experiences of three characters throughout the course of one day, would you consider The Banyan Tree similar in its basic premise?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2012


    The writing is unbearably clever. He spends so much time trying to make each sentence lyrical or alliterative that they frequently make no sense. Obviously not a fan of Hemingway and the simple sentence. It was tortuous to try to read and I gave up several pages in. I guess don't get the point of this style of writing - to try to impress the reader with your skills? A clear, simple , beautifully constructed sentence is more impressive in my book. This was annoying.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2004

    to know life

    I love this book, I have read it several times thrugh the years and always come away with a new outlook. To read and understand this book is to understand how a women thinks.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2003


    This novel was beautiful in words and in deeds. The language is meandering and must be carefully followed until the idea flows to you thru the words. You will know soon enough if you enjoy this journey of a family in rural Ireland. I will leave it to you to like or reject...a constant memory will be the reference to clocks...I could 'hear' the silence of this place with the ticking clock. I made sure to find a clock for welcome in a silent house.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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