Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Red Tree by Caitlain R. Kiernan

Sarah Crowe is writer who has no grip on life.  After her first forty years in the South--Alabama and Georgia--and one tumultuous relationship that fatally ends, Sarah tries to restart her life and writing career in 'middle of nowhere' Rhode Island.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the novel is how many voices readers encounterThere is Sarah's agent who published a 'preface' to The Read Tree, which is a journal of Sarah's final days (we learn from the very start of the book that Sarah committed suicide).  There is Sarah's journal itself, which obviously makes up the overwhelming majority of the book.  There is Sarah's fiction: we are given at least one short story and an excerpt from one of her novels.  Finally, there is the voice of the home's previous tenant and co-author of The Red Tree Dr. Harvey, who also committed suicide. 

Kiernan is very impressive in that all her voices sound real and authentic.  They are each distinct and hold up very well.  It's a chore to make the singular voice of a novel be strong enough to hold reader interest let alone so many varying one.
The first one-hundred plus pages of the book recount near all of Sarah's life up until the present.  The pace is slower than need be and easily could have been jump started with stronger foreshadowing.  Even had the reasons to keep reading been made stronger and if the novel had started a third of the way in I'm not sure there would have much more to work with.
The plot is rather thin in this near four-hundred page book.  The house in Rhode Island where Sarah lives has a disturbing history.  It's previous tenant Dr. Harvey, a Ph D in parapsychology, was studying the history of the house and the eponymous tree.  There are disturbing tales of violence, murder, and worse.  Aside from living in the same house, Sarah's strongest connection to Dr. Harvey is finding his typewriter and unfinished manuscript about the tree in the house's basement.  The tree is depicted as an alter of sorts as well as a pseudo-sentient being; it commands people to do terrible things and leaves leaves in places they shouldn't be; often times in places it should be impossible for leaves to be.
Sarah's new life in Rhode Island is anything but productive.  She never once makes an effort to work on the novel she has been paid an advance to write.  Reading the average person's diary is altogether boring if you don't know the individual.  Sarah is no different.  Her journal entries are repetitious and full of digressions and while she constantly points these two flaws out they are, in fact, still there.  The journal feels real and so the writing is realistically flawed.  For the reader, this is not positive authenticity.  She obsesses over the tree and harps on and on about its domineering presence, but understand that the tree doesn't do anything.  It's a tree.  Strange things do happen but nothing is ever explained.

There is a psychological factor to the book that is a lot of fun and at it's best, nothing short of brilliant.  By the book's end you will certainly be wondering, "what happened?" and wanting to know what was real.  However, Kiernan's subtlety in conveying Sarah's mental state is so well conceived and controlled, and the pacing is so evenly measured that plot events were robbed of power.  By the book's end I could reflect on events that could have made a bigger impact had I been given more information, earlier.  Sarah's mental deterioration is phenomenal in retrospect: having finished the book.  Appropriately, her instability is difficult to detect while reading the book.  Thus, none of the book's events felt concrete enough to truly have impact.  It is positively disturbing how well Kiernan manages Sarah's mental collapse.  I hope you'll note the irony of these 'criticisms.'  I think Kiernan is a great writer but somehow her strengths compiled to work against her. 
Fans of Kiernan don't need to pay any heed to my comments as they have no doubt already read the book.  New comers to Kiernan wanting to get a taste may be better advised to check out some of the authors short fiction, as I think it is much stronger.  Ultimately, the immediacy of fear and obsession with the red tree that the novel's characters were so obsessed with was never conveyed to me with equal strength.

I think The Red tree is an exceptionally well written novel.  And for reasons that are genuinely very hard to point out--yet enjoyable to read about--it is a very creepy novel.  Unfortunately, I didn't think it was a very interesting novel.  


Marion said...

I laughed out loud when I read, "but understand, the tree doesn't do anything. It's a tree."

Chad Hull said...

"S Truth!