In her fifth novel, Nicole Lundrigan shifts her focus from Newfoundland (her setting of choice in previous novels) to 1953 Yugoslavia, delivering in the process a wrenching tale of betrayal and loss.
At the centre of this strongly plotted novel are two fatherless teenage boys, Dorján and János, who must cope with their status as Hungarians in a Serbian village. Their friendship is complicated by their feelings for Nevena, the daughter of the village’s Komandant. When the trio discovers a cache of gold coins, János convinces his friends to bury the find and keep its existence secret, imagining the windfall might serve them well in the future.
When János disappears, Lundrigan adroitly develops suspense about the young man’s fate, marvellously blending in details of the teens’ families and paying particular attention to an erstwhile romance between the Komandant and János’s mother, Gitta. The author cleverly deploys red herrings and information about multiple betrayals; when the truth comes out, the complications of love, loyalty, and awful mistakes illustrate the ways in which life can take strange and tragic turns.
Lundrigan is adept at using detail to convey meaning. In particular, the rich specificity of the novel’s descriptions of food demonstrates the economic disparity among the three friends. The boys are usually hungry, in part because they are typical teenagers, but also because neither Dorján’s grandmother, Zsuzsi, nor Gitta has enough money to keep them well fed. By contrast, Nevena enjoys a materially comfortable life because of her father’s position.
The Widow Tree touches on numerous important topics: power, prejudice, jealousy, repression, sexism, friendship, and love. The one slightly wobbly note is the thoroughly thuggish figure of Racic, the Komandant’s right-hand man. Unlike all the other characters, he is one-dimensional, a complete villain. Despite this minor flaw, The Widow Tree deftly dramatizes the ways family tragedies play out against the larger backdrop of national and ethnic interests.