Taiwan is a place where human history mimics nature. ‘An unstable landmass in perpetual confrontation,’ writes Jessica J Lee. She’s speaking geologically (Taiwan exists at the meeting of tectonic plates) but she is also referring to Taiwan’s complex history, characterised by repeated invasion, and to the history of her own family – one which has led to much internal wrangling.
In Two Trees Make a Forest, Lee travels to Taiwan from Canada – her home country – to trace the lives of her maternal grandparents, both of whom left the Chinese mainland for Taiwan following the brutal Chinese Civil War. While there, she hikes treacherous mountain trails (Taiwan is just 89 miles wide but climbs nearly 4,000m from sea level), and closely observes its abundant flora and fauna in an attempt to reconcile her own fractured identity. Her hope is evident – by discovering what made her grandparents who they were, can she too find a home in Taiwan and thereby heal her divided world, one that ‘exists in halves’?
Intermingled family, geographical and political history make this a fascinating and gentle read. It is both an introduction to Taiwan, its people and its topography, and a highly personal, and honest, account of one family. It is beautifully written, full of metaphor and short passages of illuminating description. But there is also a sense of melancholy which pervades the narrative. Lee’s grandparents did not have easy lives and nor were their deaths particularly gentle. There is anguish in these memories and confusion at the behaviour of Lee’s grandmother – a difficult woman. But there is also a sense of rising peace. As Lee plods determinedly up mountains in the wind and rain she, like many before her, finds relief in the steady act of walking and the slow, determined growth of trees.