“Deciduous” by Michael Devendorf

The Fiction Addiction

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The first few pages of Michael Devendorf’s upcoming novel Deciduous are just filled with loss. A few months before the opening of the book, the Clarke family lost their young daughter Kira in an accidental fall. Sienna was home while her daughter was playing outside and blames herself for the accident. Less than a year later, with the family still reeling from Kira’s tragic death, her son Kai is killed in a freak accident while playing just outside the family’s home. 

Sienna, already grieving and perhaps unstable after such losses, begins to have strange visions of a mother tree.  The mother tree in Sienna’s vision is based on a real maple in a meadow near their summer home. This kind of maple sends off shoots, a bit like a strawberry plant, creating a family of connected trees. It’s a powerful image, invoking both the tree of life and Sienna’s conservation work, but it doesn’t seem to bring her comfort. These unsettling images feel like a dark warning. There’s almost a magical realism element throughout as Sienna longs to connect with her children. 

Throughout Deciduous, flashbacks to Sienna’s memories reveal Kira and Kai’s personalities and the affection between mother and children. These realistic moments continue to develop the relationships in the family, with a tragic edge because the reader is always aware that the children won’t live to grow up. This bittersweet quality, blending the joy of mother love with tragic loss, fills the story, even in scenes of great tension.

Deciduous constantly looks at relationships under strain. The book excels at showing the tension between in-laws and family members, especially at two people seeing the same thing and reacting in entirely different ways. Strain can strengthen relationships, too, like the growing friendship when neighbor Yvonne steps up to help Sienna in her grief. 

It’s clearly Sienna’s story, but even Yvonne is a realistically complex person. She has a strong belief in yoga and meditation, but can’t quite quit smoking when she’s lonely and stressed. This is just another minor character detail showing realistically how strain and sadness affect us. After her divorce, she barely thinks about her ex-husband, but misses her former step-children constantly, facing a different kind of loss even as she helps Sienna. 

This is a story about Sienna’s loss, but she’s not entirely free to grieve. The police begin to investigate two unlikely accidental deaths occurring in the same family. It’s only natural that they’d have questions, and where detectives go, muckraking reporters go too. Between the questions from the detectives and the questions raised in Sienna’s own visions, she begins to doubt what happened. Is there something she doesn’t understand? Why weren’t her children safe in their own backyard? 

Deciduous tells a story about grief, but it’s also a story about what we keep secret in ourselves and what we don’t question in others.  Without revealing too much, the narrative takes unexpected twists, both in the unfolding discoveries and in how Sienna copes with her loss, to tell a surprising story about a mother’s love and a mother’s strength.

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Deciduous is by Michael Devendorf and will be published by Koehler Books on April 20, 2021. Originally reviewed on The Fiction Addiction.

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