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A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets



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About The Book

A searing and unforgettable memoir about a family secret revealed by a DNA test, the lessons learned in its aftermath, and the indelible power of love.

“A moving account…[and] a reminder of the abundance of experience present in all families, and the power and healing that can come from honoring those many truths.” —The Washington Post

Three months after Kyo Maclear’s father dies in December 2018, she gets the results of a DNA test showing that she and the father who raised her are not biologically related. Suddenly Maclear becomes a detective in her own life, unravelling a family mystery piece by piece, and assembling the story of her biological father. Along the way, larger questions arise: what exactly is kinship? What does it mean to be a family? And how do we belong to larger ecosystems?

Unearthing is a captivating and propulsive story of inheritance that goes beyond heredity. Infused with moments of suspense, it is also a thoughtful reflection on race, lineage, and our cultural fixation on recreational genetics. Readers of Michelle Zauner’s bestseller Crying in H Mart will recognize Maclear’s unflinching insights on grief and loyalty, and keen perceptions into the relationship between mothers and daughters.

What gets planted, and what gets buried? What role does storytelling play in unearthing the past and making sense of a life? Can the humble act of tending a garden provide common ground for an inquisitive daughter and her complicated mother? “A lovely meditation on the hidden past and the blossoming future” (Kirkus Reviews) and a “generous, open-handed perspective” (NPR), Unearthing bursts with the very love it seeks to understand.


MA WAS A GARDENER. WHERE she saw gradients of celadon, emerald, sage, olive, I saw only a thin green blur. When given a plant by someone who thought I looked capable, I would start out full of hope. I admired the buds for opening with confidence and the buoyant way the leaves unrolled. But before too long, the sprightly leaves would wilt or crisp. The Madagascar jasmine, enfeebled by too little sun or not enough water, would sigh toward the ground. The peace lily, overflooded with daily attention, would sag and expire. All the sad plants… I could not, in spite of my mother’s effortless example, and my effortful efforts, keep them alive.

Then things took an unexpected turn and what I had dismissed as not for me but for my mother suddenly moved to the fore. In early spring, 2019, it was determined through DNA testing that I was unrelated to the man I had always thought was my father. Well into the journey of my life, the imagined map of my family, with its secure placement of names and borders, was suddenly very wrong. All at once, my silver-haired mother became unknown to me. She had a big story to tell, a story of a secret buried for half a century. A story that she struggled to express—or had no wish to express—in her adoptive language, English.

I wanted my mother’s story. I wanted a tale that could put my world back together. But each time I pressed, my mother shook her head.

My mother had never really liked stories. She looked at them with suspicion. All my life she questioned both the ones I read and the ones I wrote. All my life, she asked: What are you doing? And nine times out of ten, I replied: I am writing or I am reading. Both answers brought forth the look. The look rightly asked, What purpose is there to your efforts? The look accurately said, No one can eat a story, no one can dine on a book. On the rare occasion someone commended my writing in her company, she bore a weary smile. A smile that pitied the speaker for not realizing there were better, more reputable products out there; better, less soft ways to spend a life. But the look also said: Don’t squander it. Write something worthy and practical… write a plant book.

In 2019, what did and did not work between us was now irrelevant. All the ways we had been at odds in life no longer mattered. I needed to understand my mother better, and the only way to do so was in the language she knew best. Given the state of my forgotten first language, Japanese, I chose her second fluently spoken language, the one she never pushed on me: the wild and green one.

This is a plant book made of soil, seed, leaf and mulch. In 2019, I turned to the small yard outside our house and the plants my mother had woven into my life, to bridge a gap between us. The yard was scruffy and overgrown. It belonged to the city, to the bank and, most truly, for thousands of years, and still, to the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg. With my sleeves rolled and my fingers mingling with the rose-gray earthworms, I set to work.

It did not go well. Not at first. The garden quickly informed me: I did not know plants. I knew only my idea of them, and you cannot grow an idea. The garden said: This will not work if you are only here for the metaphor. The garden asked me to remember the child I was, a child who loved getting dirty, and to remember that first lesson: Nothing grows if you keep yourself clean, smooth, undisturbed.

When I stopped attributing every little plant event to my own doing and realized I did not have control (the opposite of a storyteller’s mindset), the plants began to grow. When I remembered that plots are often driven and overturned by underestimated agents, I stopped underestimating.

A mother enters a story. But how does she enter? How does she walk across the pages of a book? Does she enter wearing her regret, rage, sadness or humor? Does she enter boxing away clichés and pushing against containment? Does she enter demanding payment? Does she enter as a gardener?

I learned more about my mother’s plant passions, to feel the events and landscape that passed through her heart, to take stock of what I had failed sufficiently to notice and love—the unseen greens, the hazy “scenery” of life.

I am the sole keeper of my family’s stories.

“What stories? Why stories?” she says.

About The Author

Photograph by David Wall

Kyo Maclear was born in London, England, and moved to Toronto at the age of four. Her most recent book, Birds Art Life, was published in seven territories and became a Canadian #1 bestseller. Unearthing was an instant bestseller in Canada as well. Kyo received a PhD from York University in the environmental humanities. Her short fiction, essays, and art criticism have been published in Orion MagazineAsia Art PacificLitHubBrickThe MillionsThe GuardianLion’s Roar, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), among other publications. She is also a children’s author, editor, and teacher.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (August 22, 2023)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668012604

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Raves and Reviews

"A moving account of a daughter’s struggle to know her mother before she loses her…This story is a reminder of the abundance of experience present in all families, and the power and healing that can come from honoring those many truths.”The Washington Post

"[A] masterful, original and poetic memoir... As Kyo slowly realizes that the father she’s mourning isn’t actually her father, she unearths truths she never saw coming. A mix of literary tactics like repetition and short form sections, this unique, powerful and captivating memoir mixed with gardening and plant life, is truly a wow.”—Zibby Owens, Good Morning America

"Many memoirs have examined issues of paternity and parental infidelity, but Maclear's stands out due to elegant writing and insightful musings on the making and shaping of identities, always with the garden behind her to provide an anchor... A lovely meditation on the hidden past and the blossoming present."—Kirkus Reviews

"In this magnificent, searing memoir, Kyo Maclear takes us on a journey that is at once singular and utterly universal. What forces contribute to who we are and who we become? And what happens when the story we know to be true of ourselves is uprooted, unearthed? In poetic language that cuts to the bone, Maclear grapples with these questions and the result is a profound reading experience. I will never forget it."—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance

"Unearthing is simply staggering. Maclear takes the shocking revelations of a DNA test and transforms them into a mind-altering and supremely generous exploration of kinship, selfhood, memory, and the roots we share across time, space and species. A quantum leap for an already brilliant and profound writer and thinker." —Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything

"Maclear guides the reader on a mind-altering journey that challenges biological determination, while rooting family in the daily practice of care and love…moving." — Esquire

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