Welcome back to Devon and as the weather's nearly warm and the word 'trees' features in the title of today's NTTVBG selection, I've moved us out to the summerhouse in the millenium apple orchard.
'Orchard' is actually rather a pretentious term for a hotch-potch of about twelve gnarly old apple trees doubtless nursing between them every blight known to pomiculture, but the blossom's on the way so they are about to look very pretty and we've cleared the straw and the mice out of the summerhouse.
Plus the setting is quite uplifting and joyous and the view across to Cornwall will soon be looking this glorious
and I think we might be needing all the glorious and uplifting we can find today.
So pull up a deckchair, pour yourself a drink and yes, that's the bacon sarnies cooking on the barbecue that you can smell...none of this wasting four hours waiting for the charcoal to warm up, we thought we'd just have the thing flaming along all day and apologies now for the noisy neighbours.
It's the BBQ...for some reason it makes them nervous.
Ahem, well now I can't procrastinate any longer, The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan, a Canadian writer whose book was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2008.
Do you just want to shoot me right away and be done with it for choosing such a bleak, dark and seemingly miserable read because I'll admit that I've struggled with this one.
I think I've emerged feeling a bit curate's egg about it, there is no question in my mind that it is, in many ways, undoubtedly a brilliant and very assured book and I was full of hope as I started to read. There is much I have admired in the quality of the prose and the inner lives revealed, but as I approached the end I have had my share of possibly self-inflicted difficulties with it too.
I have a feeling we may have much to talk about today which is all to the good and I'm feeling of an open mind and quite prepared to turn around my thinking about this one.
To summarise very quickly, and as usual beware of spoilers.
William and Naomi Heath, 1870s England and with three children lost to diphtheria (and how pleased I was to win Guess That Disease from the descriptions of the symptoms and treatments), the couple emigrate to Canada where a further two children are born.
The family settles in to an established community but seems to remain detached and distant. Inexplicably William buys a gun and shoots his family but not himself. Arrested soon afterwards, accusations of embezzlement emerge from William's employer and William is sentenced to death for the murders. He is finally executed in a seriously botched hanging watched by local people. but also by Eaton, the doctor's son and friend of William's daughter, and it is the detailed imagery of that hanging that has lingered on in my mind ever since.
The emphasis is on revealing the impact of the horror on various members of this small and seemingly close-knit community whilst also exposing the divisions and guilty secrets that such an event reveals, both at the time and many years ahead.
The writing is seriously elliptical, the story frequently told at a slant, much is alluded to, much is left unsaid. The narrative is non-linear and it was often quite difficult to know where I was in the whole which would normally make a book like this my ideal read. I love a writer to trust me enough to be able to make those connections for myself and to weave those disparate threads together. I'm usually happy to feel in a bit of a muddle on the way whilst also feeling that I'm trusting the author to get me to the end, I thrive on a bit of work to do as I read and I usually enjoy a book like this immensely.
After all Hilary Mantel and I usually agree on everything and she said this of The Boys in the Trees,
' After finishing it, I feel as if I am still listening for it. It has the compelling logic of a lingering powerful dream.'
So why didn't I feel that too?
Why is my dream akin to an ongoing nightmare about those final pages and the detailed description of the botched hanging?
Why didn't my heart bleed copiously when I read how Dr Robinson went and held Heath's bound hands as he writhed his way towards an agonising death on the end of that misplaced noose?
Surely there was enough warp here through which to weave my weft, yet somehow this book just gradually stopped working for me. I felt emotionally disengaged, slightly detached from all this... or perhaps setting me up as the objective observer was Mary Swan's intention?
I'm really interested to know how others have emerged from this.
I found myself sighing with reading exhaustion after about twenty pages and then setting it aside after thirty, the day I racked up fifty pages I wasn't sure I knew where I was.
But I'm still not sure why this book has ultimately not been the satisfying read I had thought it would be (ask me in about two weeks when reading mists have cleared and I may know) because there were moments when Mary Swan's writing felt like a pure descendant of Virginia Woolf's. Yet characters I warmed to disappeared without trace (Abby), others of less interest were suddenly given undue prominence (Eaton) and even more seemed to fade into obscurity with just a brief reference to their demise.
Did someone drown whilst under the influence of laudanum?
Dr Robinson of fulminating septicemia with undertones of willful suicide by neglect?
But did I care?
For some reason I felt Mary Swan didn't want me to know them well, just slightly and to be honest I didn't care and rightly or wrongly I do like to care about characters as I read.
Even Dr Robinson remained tantalisingly remote to me despite all his soul-searching revelations.
I mentioned self-inflicted difficulties and I lay the blame squarely at the feet of William Maxwell.
Having recently read several of his books, So Long, See You Tomorrow slightly mirrors the plot here, whilst Time Will Darken It has similarly named characters, but sadly to this book's disadvantage perhaps William Maxwell currently feels like the unassailable master of the small town American drama to me.
There is much to be said for not criticising a writer for not doing what they had never intended to do in the first place (sorry triple negatives can't possibly be allowed) and it's clear that Mary Swan never intended me to have the chapter I desperately craved (and still crave but have had to try and 'write' for myself) and perhaps you did too...William Heath's?
Because if I cared about anyone I cared about William.
I can cope with loose ends aplenty if I'm given enough to tie them up with eventually and I'm hoping that is something we can talk about too.
I suspect the answer to that may lie here (p168)
'And if you went back as Jenny sometimes did, they were there, the clues were there, the clues you'd missed while you were reading, caught up in the need to move forward.'
I still feel sure Mary Swan is too good a writer not to have left those clues and whilst I seem to be full of negatives and feel as if I am doing her a great disservice, I'm really hoping against hope that you all have some answers, so I'm going to stop there and can't wait to hear your thoughts.
I was reading Sara Paretsky's blog yesterday and this thought of hers struck me.
'At the same time, I do believe like Kushner that “your only obligation as a writer is to tell the truth,” to perform surgery on yourself so that you’re exposing your bone–if you can bear to cut that deep you will write the truth and then it will speak truly to other readers. It sounds so noble, and yet so many petty fears and angers get in the way of diving deep into the soul that I sometimes wonder how I even write a coherent sentence.'
And I feel sure that Mary Swan has poured her heart and soul into The Boys in the Trees and somehow I've failed to see that truth.
Funnily enough this now feels like a real live book group dilemma / blues and twos emergency.
In walks the person who chose the book looking a bit apologetic and muttering,
'Well, really sorry, this one didn't work for me.'
to be met either by a chorus of
'Oh I loved it'
'That's the last time we let you choose the book.'
I wanted to love it too and somehow I haven't yet...but I'm not above trying harder, so over to you.