“’My mum.’ The images of death are involuntary and relentless: crushed snail shells, veins in meat, vampire teeth, soil filling a mouth.”
The year’s end is always a great time to read a chilling novel: I remember finishing 2018 with Melmoth by Sarah Perry; 2019 with Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley; and now 2020 with Pine, Francine Toon’s eerie debut.
And it is deeply eerie and deeply embedded in the environment of the Scottish Highlands around the Moray Firth. There is a wildness and otherness about those descriptions, of the forest – definitely a forest and not a wood – that borders Lauren’s home and through the edges and fringes of which Lauren and her friends ride bikes along The Loop and build forts. But a forest that delves deeper than anyone truly dares to go.
And ten and a half year old Lauren is the heart of this novel. She is all-but an orphan, having lost her mother Christine who disappeared when she was a baby, and having almost lost her father Niall in the drink he needs to survive his grief and loneliness. And Toon crafts her as a character with a tender balance: she is still a child and innocent loving Frozen and Disney Princess magazines and the Beano; but she also has had a maturity forced upon her early and cares for herself when her father doesn’t or can’t and cares for him when needed.
And the pain with which Toon describes the empty yearning gap in her heart for her lost mother – bereft of even memories, photographs or stories about her – is awful, but expertly rendered. The books opens (aptly enough) on Hallowe’en as Lauren and her friend Billy are going “guising” and Lauren is dressed as a vampire.
‘Is that lipstick?’ her father asks.
‘No, it’s face paint,’ Lauren says, lying. It is the one time of year she can wear something of her mother’s. It feels precious. Clandestine.
Toon does wonderful things with this small items like the lipstick or the “piece of antler that folds out into a knife” which Lauren keeps in her pocket stroking it occasionally for comfort. Or the circles of stones that start to crop up and rumours of fires and cheap claddagh rings. These become almost totemic motifs, perhaps more moving and more sinister than some of the other images.
Because this is at its heart a ghost tale and Toon seems very much aware of the tradition in which she is writing whilst twisting and subverting some of its tropes. On the way home from the guising, Lauren and her father encounter a battered and bruised woman in white – but the whiteness here is the mundane whiteness of a towelling dressing gown and all the more uncanny for that – who does not speak and who disappears during the night. A woman whom Niall cannot recall in the morning.
Toon balances us on a knife-edge of doubt. Was this woman a figment of Lauren or Niall’s imagination, conjured up to fill the void left by Christine’s death? Was she Christine herself? Was she a ghost? Were her intentions benevolent or malevolent? Because both Christine and Lauren were interested in New Age faith and healing, candles and tarot cards and something that touched on, perhaps, witchcraft.
There is also a wonderful sense of community here too: Niall and Lauren may be fairly isolated in their cottage, but the village is full of wonderful characters: Billy’s parents Kirsty and Craig look out for Lauren in such a tender, careful way, knowing Niall’s failings as a father but sympathetic for his loss; Ann-Marie who has escaped the village for Edinburgh but returned in disgrace and her friend Diane who is stuck caring for her mother dreaming of escaping
But that’s the thing about here, where we live. Where do you go?’
And Sandy Ross, Niall’s friend and his band which Niall joins for a ceilidh, Angela Walker, Ann-Marie’s mother, and Catriona the newly arrived GP whom Niall clumsily, painfully, awkwardly considers as a potential partner. And Vairi Grant, living alone with tiny dogs and dismissed by Niall as “That auld woman”. The ties and conflicts within this community were skilfully and economically sketched out in just such a way as to make the whole village seem alive.
I loved Toon’s use of language here too. There was something gauntly lyrical and poetic in her sentences, in the fragmentation of them, in the pared back grammar and her scarcity of conjunctions and discourse markers. It was as if language had become insufficient to manage either the tale of grief or the terror of the supernatural in the story. And her imagery was heavily sensual: characters touch and stroke each other, the night is filled with sounds and Lauren’s mouldering house is full of damp and mold and Toon uses the scents in the house to great effect.
About two-thirds of the way through the novel, there is a sharp shift towards the thriller and the reader starts to wonder and question just how much darkness might be hidden in the souls of some of the characters we have met. And the novel does not lose the gothic, layering over an already tense setting another level of tension and threat.
If I had one gripe – and I do – the resolution of the novel did not quite work for me. I’m not sure how to explain it further without spoilers, but I did have issues with it!
Overall, however, this is an outstanding debut and a perfect end-of-year chiller. I’m just a little disappointed that I left it to the end of this year to read it when it was available almost a year ago!
Again, a David Mitchell book is an event, and a thing of beauty! But the music industry is not my natural setting and again I was caught between this and another book – Daisy Jones and the Six in this case – and Daisy Jones was read first. This time, because it was nominated on a book club I was part of.
Bonus: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch
They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.
Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich – they’re the only ones worth stealing from – but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.
This one has been on my TBR for years. Literally years. I have heard nothing but praise for it, but so far have never quite got around to reading it! Go figure!
So, there we go: a range of books that I got in 2020 – save for the Scott Lynch – and do regret not reading during the year. Is regret the right word? Probably not to be honest: I do not regret the reading that I did do last year at all. But these are books that I would like to find time to catch up with this year – before prize season hits us again!
Pop in the comments below your thoughts on these – maybe let me know which I should read first!
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 336
Date: 23rd January 2020