THE UPAS TREE by Eva Hanagan
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Spinster Ishbel Macintosh--age 51, slavey to her monstrous mother in their decaying house outside Edinburgh--is one of the earth's most meek, a creature not unlike the tiny stuffed vole in the claws of Mother's stuffed owls (""its mouth redly open, screaming silently down the years""). Indeed, Ishbel's wee ego, never destined for vigorous growth, has been parched by the hellfire tenets of her late clergyman grandfather. . . and flattened by Mother, who is imperially demanding and so tight with the purse that Ishbel labors in a freezing kitchen. Then, with her usual boorishness, Mother chooses to die on Christmas day, ""achieving the maximum of inconvenience with a minimum of effort."" Dry-eyed, feeling vaguely guilty, Ishbel is bumped along into spring and into, most surprisingly, a curiously novel warmth of well-being. After all, Mother's will has left Ishbel a considerable sum (she will renovate the kitchen frigitorium); and there's pleasure also in the regular presence of strong young Ian, whom Ishbel hires to disinter the garden. Cakes and savory lunches for two are baked, a sweater for Ian's handsome chest is knit, and the sun shines. However, years of Grandfather's thunderbolt theology concerning the putrefaction of fleshly joys are about to explode Ishbel's total being--and, on Hallowe'en, Ian and a friend, masked as the Devil and a goat, play a malicious prank on the ""poor old cow."" Ishbel, shocked out of mind, takes a pilgrimage to Grandfather's grave for guidance, returns muttering ""Thy Will Be Done,"" and sets about filling Ian's whiskey bottle with poisonous weedkiller. But, as usual, our heroine has bungled; so, while unharmed Ian flies the coop, nice widower Mr. Fraser appears to take over the gardening and cut down the house-trapping Upas tree, ""one that corrupts everything in its shade."" A sly, witty portrait of a born victim; a lightly ironic fable; an exquisite little trifle.

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1979
Publisher: St. Martin's