Sandra Danby talks about the symbolism of trees in her new novel, Connectedness.

A confession, I love trees, have done ever since I was a child. I remember going for walks on the North Yorkshire Moors and being helped by my older sister to identify the trees we saw there. Oak. Sycamore. Rowan. Ash. Alder. Willow. My small hardback guide to trees, a fifteenth birthday present from my sister, remains on my bookshelf, still used, dried leaves pressed within its pages. 

And so when I started writing the ‘Identity Detective’ novels about families separated by adoption and the pain and obstacles of seeking reunion, I realised trees were a convenient image for identity and belonging. Each of us is connected by the roots and branches to our family but also to friends, neighbours, colleagues, to all the important people who surround us. When we have those connections, with the warmth and security they bring, it is difficult to imagine being without them.

Justine Tree, the heroine of my latest novel Connectedness, has no family. Her mother has just died, her father died a few years previously. Her only living relative is the baby daughter she gave away twenty seven years earlier. Except Justine doesn’t know where Jenni is or even if she is alive. Artist Justine has hidden her secret all these years, wanting to know the truth but terrified of what she might learn, ashamed to go back. Over the years, though she has become internationally successful the pain she internalises explodes occasionally as debilitating migraines. 

No matter how she tries to ignore the significance of what she did as an art student in Spain, the love she found and lost and what she gave away, the symbolism of trees in her work, shows that her sub-conscious has not forgotten. As the search for her daughter prompts painful memories, she is drawn increasingly to leaves, bark and timber and longs to make a piece of art out of an entire tree.

Here’s a short excerpt:

Tonight she would finish sorting the leaves she had abandoned. Her preferred method of sorting leaves was by shape. Old cardboard shoeboxes were her favourite storage containers for the simple oak, elm and hornbeam leaves; they lay between tissue paper that had originally cocooned her new scarlet Converse plimsolls. Only whole perfect leaves were saved, and a high percentage turned to powder at her touch. Saving leaves was a triumph of love over practicality, probably ninety per cent never survived the process to become part of her art, but the sorting was soothing. She had done this many times, had learnt the best method. Some would be used, splintered and broken, to symbolise vulnerability and change. The perfect ones; some she would coat in varnish, others she may paint. 

She tipped the leaves on to a clean sheet laid across the floor, and knelt in the centre like a deciduous tree in October surrounded by autumnal loss. The compound leaves must be sorted into piles of horse chestnut, rowan, mountain ash. She had never lost the wonder she felt that first time she made a leaf picture at primary school: their delicacy, their muted colours, the fact that they were produced by nature, fed by rain and sun, untouched by human hand until she picked them off the ground. It had felt like magic then and it still did. Leaves freshly fallen felt soft and smooth, almost waxy, not sad dry brittle things. But alive. She had no concept then that she could make a career of something she loved. She mourned the loss of that picture.

Tonight two thin plastic carrier bags remained to be sorted. Stuffed with footpath pickings, they were all that was left of a walk through the village last autumn with her mother. Leaves, and the memory of their last walk together. Lombardy poplar, willow, walnut, the reds of copper beech and acer. Each leaf had its own scent, its own texture. She picked up a large padded envelope stuffed with fall leaves from Vermont; she’d arranged the swap with an American fellow collagist for a bag of typical English leaves. Out fell washed-out golds and reds, yellows and bronzes of pin cherry, basswood, American beech, red maple, alder and aspen from New England. Nearer brown than gold. She wished she knew how to stop the colour leaching from their vein-covered fragility, as delicate as Japanese hand-made paper.

To the outside world, artist Justine Tree has it all… but she also has a secret that threatens to destroy everything.

Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks journalist Rose Haldane to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face.

Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her art? And what will she do if her daughter hates her?

This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain.

Sandra Danby is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.

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