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This was a really wonderful read, and hard to come by. I'd somehow missed this one all these years.
It has a much different feel than Anansi the Spider, which is readily apparent just from the cover. Anansi was bright red! Anansi was grinning right us! In The Magic Tree, the colors are muted. The expression on Mavungu's profile is hard to read. This is a downbeat tale.
It begins with brothers - Mavungu and Luemba - one inexplicably favored, and one not. Mavungu leaves his home in shame. McDermott is so sparse with his prose: "One night he left his home," is all we're given, but the dark, highly stylized images show an epic journey through the nighttime rivers of the Congo.
Finally, Mavungu finds a thick tree growing from the water which blocks his path, and from the unfolding of the leaves comes a beautiful woman. These images remind me of the unfolding of a paper snowflake, colorful and mysterious, I could imagine the movement of it. The woman loves Mavungu, and transforms him into a lover worthy of her, with the only caveat that he must never tell of the Magic Tree.
It is hard to keep such a delicious secret, and the maddening dilemma along with his return to his home forms the remainder of the story. I have to say, I was surprised at the ending, and the finality of it.
He forgot those who loved him. And he gave his secret to those who did not love him at all.