When the unnamed narrator of Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s stirring second novel returns to Carmel, California, to care for her mother, she finds herself stranded at the outset of the disease. With her husband and children back in Hong Kong, and her Japanese mother steadily declining in a care facility two hours away, she becomes preoccupied with her mother’s garden—convinced it contains a kind of visual puzzle—and the dormant cherry tree within it.
Caught between tending to an unwell parent and the weight of obligation to her distant daughters and husband, she becomes isolated and unmoored. She soon starts a torrid affair with an arborist who is equally fascinated by her mother’s garden, and together they embark on reviving it. Increasingly engrossed by the garden, and by the awakening of her own body, she comes to see her mother's illness as part of a natural order in which things are perpetually living and dying, consuming and being consumed. All the while, she struggles to teach (remotely) Lady Murasaki’s eleventh-century novel, The Tale of Genji, which turns out to resonate eerily with the conditions of contemporary society in the grip of a pandemic.
The Tree Doctor is a powerful, beautifully written novel full of bodily pleasure, intense observation of nature, and a profound reckoning with the passage of time both within ourselves and in the world we inhabit.