Reviewed by Polly Kaledin
by Karen Fielding
Alice Sycamore lives in a small town by the banks of Susquehanna river. You meet the faces of this town, while Alice is telling her short stories from the past, remembering different situations she and her brother came across. American Sycamore is a book that seems to have no connection to time, but instead, focuses on one particular place. Alice’s manner of speech and perspective reminds me of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Only in this case, it is not all about her and her feelings, but about her older brother, who is strangely connected to the people, and the place of her origin. Each time Alice mentions her brother, we see how much of a mystery he is to her:
His whole life was chaos except when you opened up his tackle box. I used to slip into his bedroom just to have a look around and fiddle inside the box with its three retractable tiers, shiny lures, and plastic beads with painted eyes and wearing tiny grass skirts.
Every chapter presents a different episode, revealing a little more to the reader. American Sycamore is like a map, where you are adding new houses and landmarks by reading new stories. They are all connected in a chaotic way, the same way a human life and every day in it is a summing up of experience.
You see the past, the present, and the future of Alice, her awkward decisions and minor rebellion, all presented as a background to her brother Billy’s story and complex characterization. Billy remains a dark secret. In an American town, very close to its Indian roots, Billy Sycamore is a person of this land: he knows it and he owns it. He is the American Sycamore, like a tree grown into the bank of Susquehanna, close to the river and nature. He is also suffering from several disorders, and that makes his mind even more mysterious, because, unless we understand him, we think he is just insane: “One thing Billy used to say about his hallucinatory mind was: Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
American Sycamore is as intimate as a chat with a friend or a reminiscence on a summer evening in a big comfortable armchair on the front porch. While reading, you physically sense the smell of the river, and the insects. You feel the place. You want to hold this book, carry it around to accidentally open, and read new stories: “There are times in life when it is safe to remember.”
Despite the intensity, American Sycamore is not dark. It promises a lot of funny moments to everyone brave enough to jump into it. Karen Fielding makes sure you have an equal proportion of fun and reflection.
About the reviewer: Polly Suzanna Kaledin is from Winnipeg, Canada. She enjoys contemporary literature and has a strong passion for fiction in particular.