Title: Feijoa — A Story of Obsession & Belonging

Author: Kate Evans

Publisher: Hachette/Moa Press, 2024; RRP $34.99

I picked this work to read and review primarily because I have two feijoas in my garden and I don’t know enough about them save my neighbour has one and I thought why not. It has been a puzzling journey. One is currently covered in fruit after five to six years of providing me with lovely exotic-looking flowers blossoming out from promising little green nubs that would then drop off the branch without going any further. The second was slashed back to its base by an overly enthusiastic gardening helper and ever since has done nothing more than slowly claw its way back from what seemed certain annihilation. Though tropical by nature, and despite my very unhealthy soil, they are doing better than I thought so I already knew it was not an ordinary tree, and this book was a chance to learn more. 

Feijoa: A Story of Obsession & Belonging is written, predictably, by a feijoa addict, one who says  in the opening lines that this fruit ‘feels like home to me’. This I get. Apricots are home to me, so this approach sounded very promising.

Though centred on the feijoa, this work is also part memoir and part travel, interweaving geography, history and cultural explorations with detailed descriptions of feijoa-based meals shared with others, a sprinkling of recipes in which feijoa is the main act, and a search for a garden lost to time.

The historical and cultural influence includes socio-economic and political history of countries and peoples where the feijoa played an important role in everyday life, and also in the wider political and economic spheres.

It also contains information about the medicinal and health use of feijoa from the indigenous peoples of different countries thousands of years old, to recent discoveries in scientific laboratories. There is also reference to the lack of acknowledgement of either this older knowledge or the peoples who shared it with others who came later. In her dedication the author writes, 

For the feijoa-lovers, from 4000 years ago to today.

Warning us that Feijoa extends far beyond the walls of scientific laboratories and our backyards, and into the lives of all the different cultures and lands on which feijoa grows and has been loved for thousands of years.

The author travelled widely in her investigations. The chapters are headed conveniently for each country she visited. This is not only a tidy way of ordering the social  and cultural contexts of the role feijoa played in each location but also allowed me as a gardener to compare what was described there with the environment mine are growing in. There I  discovered its amazing resilience and capacity to survive – which explained the miraculous survival of a near death experience of one of mine.

Kate Evans talks about her love of the feijoa

@ abc nightlife

Both memoir and non memoir components of Feijoa are supported by a substantial set of End Notes pp 287-307 containing a mix of citations and footnotes rather than being a traditional bibliography. Citations of published works are mixed with recollections or the addition of extra information supporting what is contained in the body of the work. Where political, historical, medical, cultural, social, economic, agricultural or any other non-memoir statements are made, what is said refers back to a searchable source.

Who would enjoy this work?

This work is definitely niche, even for gardeners, however it satisfies more than one niche, which means potential to please more than one reading interest.

Even if you don’t particularly like feijoa the book is interesting for its approach of exploring the world through an unashamedly besotted focus on one plant, going deeper than simply how to grow and cook it – though foodies would be interested in that too. There is useful information for gardeners thinking of getting or already having a feijoa in their garden. The travel and memoir sides are entertaining in their own right and the extended look into the wider contexts in which one piece of fruit sits was also interesting. It is also particularly pleasing for anyone who fits more than one – personally I found the combination of travel, memoir, cooking and gardening both useful and enjoyable.

The author, New Zealand’s Kate Evans, is an award-winning journalist and nature writer who has written for, among others, The Guardian, The Observer, National Geographic and Scientific American. She has also won national media awards for scientific and environmental journalism and feature writing. She has also worked as a TV producer, and a video journalist including at the ABC and the BBC and reporting from multiple locations internationally.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell, June 2024

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the publisher