Companion Plants, Kathryn Roberts
Fomite Press, 2014
Reviewed by Jonita Davis
The definition of a “companion plant” is well-known in the gardening community. Naturally, being an alien to that crowd, I had to look it up. Here’s what I found (culled from several definitions):
The practice of cultivating plants from a variety of species closely around one another in order to share the protection, nutrition, and other benefits of the species with other plants.
The effective use of this definition in the novel Companion Plants by Kathryn Roberts suggests that Roberts is a gardening aficionado. Whatever the case, she found a title that best fits the novel. In what at first seems to be a misguided story of promiscuity, unresolved grief, and sexual confusion, is actually a smoothly embedded tale of honesty about loss, while exploring the importance of friendship. These themes are realized in the actions of the main character/narrator as she subconsciously surrounds herself with—and subsequently harms—the people equipped in character and experience to help her through issues. These secondary characters are the companion plants.
The young narrator of the story experiences a loss—a suicide of a close friend—at the start of the novel that sends her entire life into a tailspin. To avoid facing the reality of their situation, she and her best friend Jackie run away from the only life they’ve known to wander across the country. The girls eventually find a group of guys who are migrant workers in the pot-farming industry. The cash-only, nomadic, and unbound lifestyle of the group is appealing to the girls who cannot come to terms with their grief.
Together, the pot farmers and Jacki become the only grounding force for the narrator. The group’s collective character traits provide comfort and refuge for the girl. The arrangement works well for her, but somehow ends up decimating the individuals in the group in very raw and real physical and psychological ways. The group ultimately succeeds only in delaying the inevitable implosion that narrator is in a losing battle to quell.
In a move that seems a bit heavy-handed, but still plausible for the story, she eventually ends up in a mental hospital. As she recovers away, the girl meets Jacki’s father, who also found himself afloat, drifting across the country and unable to deal with the grief. He comes searching for his daughter, but finds that the narrator may just be the companion plant he needs to begin dealing with his own issues.
One of Roberts’ more skilled techniques is her ability to make the audience feel so much from a simple description. Her textual picture of Jacki’s wasting form and inability to allow any food to enter into her body is haunting, while screaming the pain of Jacki’s grief without having the character utter a word. The narrator’s obsession with Jacki as she is wasting away is also a visual image of how one-sided the companion planting relationship was between them. The “benefits” the narrator is sucking out of the “plants” (Jacki and the migrants) around her is more than she is giving in return. It is a well written piece of imagery and a haunting reminder of the book’s overall theme. This image is also only one example of the moving text you will fill within the pages of Companion Plants.
In a time when the fictional grief novel is typically submerged in either young adult puppy love tales or overly dramatized romantic treatises, Roberts’ novel, Companion Plants, comes as a refreshing step back into an old-fashioned story that does not sugarcoat or eroticize the realities of loss. The book expertly handles the themes of loss and the complexities of reconciling grief. Full recovery is often not the option in the real world, a fact Roberts also captures in her storyworld. She is unafraid to explore the ambiguities that follow families (both biological and socially constructed) and they muddle through the aftermath of a loss by suicide. Everyone is touched, not just the victim. Everyone experiences the loss in their own way.
Audiences looking for a moving work that is hard to put down, and emotionally vivid will definitely love Companion Plants by Kathryn Roberts.