Tenacity in the face of illness, madness, and despair is an important motif in The Coffin Tree. The narrator’s father indicates to a comrade that his daughter has a strong character, but the narrator comes to understand this only after a lifetime of emotional abandonment and isolation. Wendy Law-Yone probes what makes people want to keep living in spite of grief and loss, fear and guilt, physical hardship and spiritual emptiness. The novel suggests an answer in the words that begin and end the book: “Living things prefer to go on living.” The life force is depicted as stronger than despair in all but the most severe cases. This is illustrated not only by the narrator’s lingering grandmother, who takes three years to die, but also by the patients in the mental hospital. They may live in a disturbed state of anger, like Sarah, or denial, like Helga, but they cling to life all the same.

Isolation is a recurring theme in the novel. The narrator moves progressively from loneliness in childhood to cultural displacement when she arrives in New York to self-alienation in the mental hospital. The narrator’s isolation is aggravated partly by circumstances beyond her control and partly by an inability to form connections with others. Her attempts to help a beggar when she is young and her neighbor Colonel Morgan and Paddy when she is an adult meet with confusing and painful results which reinforce the belief that detachment is the safest attitude to maintain toward the world. The fact that the narrator never discloses her name in the novel is evidence of...

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