Book Review: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker


‘Always the hardest path. Always the highest tree.’

About the Book

Description (courtesy of Goodreads): When war breaks out in Europe in 1939, a young, unknown writer journeys from his home in neutral Ireland to conflict-ridden Paris and is drawn into the maelstrom. With him we experience the hardships yet stubborn vibrancy at the heart of Europe during the Nazis’ rise to power; his friendships with James Joyce and other luminaries; his quietly passionate devotion to the Frenchwoman who will become his lifelong companion; his secret work for the French Resistance and narrow escapes from the Gestapo; his flight from occupied Paris to the countryside; and the rubble of his life after liberation. And through it all we are witness to workings of a uniquely brilliant mind struggling to create a language that will express his experience of this shattered world. Here is a remarkable story of survival and determination, and a portrait of the extremes of human experience alchemized into timeless art.

Book Facts

Format: Hardcover Publisher: Doubleday Pages: 336
Publication: 5th May 2016 Genre: Historical Fiction    

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My Review

A Country Road, A Tree is one of the books shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. You can find out more about the prize and the other shortlisted novels here.

The book follows the experiences of an unnamed protagonist. However, he is easily identified as Samuel Beckett from the references to him as the author of Murphy, his friendship with James Joyce and his childhood home in Ireland, Cooldrinagh. As well as James Joyce and his wife Nora, the book has walk-on parts for other cultural figures of the period such as Marcel Duchamp. For convenience, I’m going to refer to the protagonist as Beckett.

The book is divided into three parts: Part One – End, Part Two – Purgatory, and Part Three – Beginning. Now the What Cathy Read Next intertextual radar is always on standby so I wondered if this was an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy which has three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Perhaps Beckett’s time in Ireland in part one is his version of Hell because of his inability to write, his experiences in occupied France in part two are his version of purgatory, and his new found inspiration for writing that emerges in part three, his version of paradise? As always, there is a danger of over thinking these things and seeking connections where none were intended.

Throughout the book, there is a sense of Beckett as an outsider, as being displaced. At times, it seems he even welcomes this feeling – for instance, when he finds himself alone in Paris ahead of the Germans advance.

‘He pulls his jacket collar up and shoves his way out again. The night streams past him, is wet in his face. He leans into it, as if there’s a wind blowing, though the air is perfectly still. He is drunk, of course; he has no papers, his friends are leaving left and right; Paris is deserted; he is no use to anyone at all. He feels, for once, and only briefly, quite content.’

Similarly, when faced with the alternative of returning to Ireland, where he knows he will be unable to write, or staying in Paris, where he knows he will face difficulties as a displaced person, he concludes: ‘There’s nowhere left to be.’

At one stage, Beckett and his partner, Suzanne, attempt to flee Paris and the plight of other refuges they observe from the train is vividly described.  I have read similar descriptions in non-fiction accounts of that period.

‘The road is a rubbish dump, a mound of junk and clutter. But then it separates itself into movement, , individuals, men and women trudging burdened like ants; into cars, donkeys, handcarts, prams, horses, suitcases, bicycles, frying pans and mattresses, birds in cages, briefcases. A child lugging a baby. An old woman in a pram, legs dangling, pushed by an old man who squints in the bright June sun.’

Eventually, Beckett finds he is unable to stand by and do nothing and agrees to assist the French Resistance by gathering information on German military strength and deployment. The author convincingly describes the sense of fear that must have been experienced by those involved – the unexpected knock at the door, the sound of vehicles arriving outside – and the uncertainty of knowing who to trust. Riding on the Metro to deliver information to his contact, Beckett’s fear of discovery puts him into an almost delusionary state.

‘There are not too many people in the Metro at this time of day. Which is just as well, since every single one of them is staring at him. Not unreasonably, either: his bag has swollen to the size of a suitcase, and his legs have grown too long for him, and his elbows stick out like coat-hangers.   He is a crane-fly carrying a brick. A flamingo in charge of a wardrobe. Who wouldn’t stare?’  

The torment – physical and mental – of a writer unable to write is another theme explored in the book. The necessity to write is summed up by a fellow writer he meets (Anna Beamish in the book, but in real life the author Anne O’Meara de Vic Beamish).

“If one is not writing, one is not quite oneself, don’t you find?”

And he thinks: the sweaty sleepless nights in Ireland, heart racing, battling for breath…The two things are connected: the writing and the panic. He just had not put them together, until now.

“It’s like snails make slime”, she’s saying. “One will never get along, much less be comfortable, if one doesn’t write.”

Beckett is comes across as a complicated character, in fact infuriating at times. His mother (but this could sum up the thoughts of his partner, Suzanne, as well) comments:

‘Always the hardest path. Always the highest tree. He’d fall, and having fallen, would dust himself off, and climb the tree again. When the tree itself had no need to be climbed at all.’

(Although tree climbing does come in useful at one point!)

Like many people, I suspect, my knowledge of Samuel Becket is confined to knowing him as a formidable figure in Irish writing and the author of Waiting For Godot. I certainly did not know that he had spent time in Paris during its occupation by Germany in WW2 or that he had been involved with the French Resistance. So whilst being thoroughly drawn into the story, which is beautifully told and compelling, I wondered if I was a missing a dimension through not knowing more about Beckett. Clearly the author approaches the book as an admirer and someone extremely familiar with Beckett’s work.

Having said that, reading this book did make me search out more information about Beckett and having done this my impression of this book became even more favourable. I was able to recall references that I’d missed before. For instance, the relevance of the book’s title.   In Waiting for Godot, the characters Estragon and Vladimir are waiting on a country road near a tree, bare of leaves initially. And at one point in A Country Road, A Tree, Beckett and Suzanne wait under a tree with only a few leaves on it on an unlit country road for someone to meet them. A boy arrives (as in Act 1 of Waiting for Godot). There you go; this is a very clever book.

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In three words: Clever, literary, powerful

JoBakerAbout the Author


Jo Baker is the author of six novels, most recently Longbourn and A Country Road, A Tree. She has also written for BBC Radio 4, and her short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. She lives in Lancaster, England, with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, and their two children.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

  1. Nice to learn about this book – I was just talking about Samuel Beckett a few days ago, though I admit I don’t know much about him, other than through Waiting for Godot. A Country Road, a Tree sounds very clever indeed!


    1. It was a book that grew on me the more I read it and even more once I read up a bit more about Beckett afterwards. Jo Baker also wrote Longbourn – have you read that? I haven’t but probably will now having enjoyed this one.


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