Gifts for the Dead is an absorbing story, with outstanding characters that navigate the tangled heart amidst precarious twists of love, loss, truth and guilt. Spanning a period prior to World War I, through the war years and later a dangerous expedition into the Amazon jungle, this story is utterly engrossing, crafting wonderful natural landscapes and a world ferociously transforming to satisfy industrial greed.
Jack and Baxter (Bax) Hopper are two brothers who have never been separated and prior to the war, travelled to the Amazon rainforest to tap rubber trees and make their fortune. Bax is the older brother, the more dominant personality and is betrothed to Nora Sweeny. Nora was orphaned when she was four and has grown up with the brothers since they were all children. She is a strong independent woman and becomes involved in women’s rights, often being asked to speak at gatherings. Jack is a quiet, broody character that has for as long as he can remember, secretly loved Nora. Jack and Nora are the two narrators of this story.
One day a knock comes to the door of Jack and Baxter’s mother in Hoboken, NJ, and Jack is carried into the house, he is almost dead, emaciated, carrying a fever and unconscious. It takes a long time for him to recover from his illness and regain even enough strength to speak. When he does, he explains Bax couldn’t return from the Amazon with him because he is dead. Of course he’s dead, he couldn’t have survived what happened – he’s sure, isn’t he? This lingering doubt torments Jack and is masterfully infused through the story and weighs heavily on his mind, especially as he has left Maggie (his mother) and Nora in no doubt that Bax perished.
The relationship between Jack and Nora is always in motion as they draw closer with growing waves of passion and affection, and recede with feelings of guilt and loss. At a deeper level, there is a gnawing uncertainty that their relationship only exists because other opportunities didn’t materialise. Nora’s memories of lost love seem more heartfelt and intense than the mechanical relationship with Jack.
“We walked together most evenings, we talked, we listened to the radio or played records on the phonograph and danced, and we made love, but we were always holding something back, giving each other more space than we needed, even when we were in the same room and sitting side by side. Space had grown around us and between us.”
The turmoil of memories, the guilt felt by Jack and the uncertainty whether Bax in alive or not, finally comes to a momentous conclusion – Jack will return to the Amazon for closure and discover what actually happened Bax. Nora insists on coming along and the second half of the novel deals with their trip to the Amazon jungle. During the expedition, Jack finally speaks about the past with Nora and the consequences are far-reaching.
The characters are richly drawn and developed with a master’s attention to detail. What I loved about Joan’s writing is that the characters grow through their daily interactions with each other and the world around them. The storyline that cultivates the characters is never obvious and captures the historical atmosphere brilliantly. This accomplished novel by Joan Schweighardt is an intricate love story that delicately beats throughout a historical narrative that journeys through foreign expeditions, a world at war and the challenging decisions families make sometimes with the best intentions.
For lovers of deep characterisation, a captivating narrative and intriguing historical insights, this is a book to read and savour. I would highly recommend it.