Monday, August 24, 2009
Have you ever read a book and couldn't decide right away whether you liked it or not? That's how I initially felt about The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan. "The Red Tree" is one of those books that seems to be one thing, but after finishing it you realize it is something else altogether and it's something that lingers with you, asking you to read it again so you might be able to put the pieces together and fully resolve the mystery. Sarah Crowe is a writer who won't tell you to read her work. She's prickly and insecure and mostly despises her own writing. After the suicide of her lover, whom she refers to as "Amanda" in her fiction, Sarah retreats to an old house in Rhode Island to be alone and try to write the book her publisher has been after her to finish. Not long after Sarah arrives at her new home she finds out that suicide is something that seems to follow her as the home's previous occupant hanged himself from the massive Red Oak that sits on the property; a tree that was the subject of a book the man was writing before he died and the half-finished manuscript for which Sarah finds hidden in the basement. The tree, after which the book is named, has been the talk of local legend for generations, or so the manuscript Sarah reads and quotes from tells her. As she delves into the mystery of the tree, she begins to experience dreams and strange occurrences that soon have her wondering whether or not the more outrageous legends about the tree might not be true after all. "The Red Tree" isn't a suspense novel. Not really. It's a psychological one. Sarah isn't a particularly easy character to like, but she is easy to relate to. Most of Sarah's story takes place in her head as she writes her story on the old typewriter that was left in the basement with the unfinished book she reads from. She does have a roommate in the house with her, but the tree casts a shadow on the house and soon both women are enveloped in their own strange kind of co-dependent isolation. Sarah writes her story in prickly, profane fashion. The language is occasionally brutal and it isn't unusual for the word c**t to be thrown out as part of her narrative though it becomes clear over time that Sarah uses that language to be deliberately provocative. All in all, "The Red Tree" ends up being a hard book to describe because it's incredibly difficult after one reading to determine what's real and what takes place in Sarah's head. The intro to the book lets us know part of the ending in advance, but it doesn't give us clues as to what part of Sarah's path is real and what is imagined. Irritating tics in Sarah's personality, like throwing out references to classical fiction, might seem initially a pretentious conceit, but really reveal a deep insecurity in her character. Plot points that seem convenient on the surface take on a wholly different complexion when the book is finished. In the end, all I can say is that author Caitlin Kiernan is a writer of great subtlety. While I'm not sure I'd give the book the 5 star rating that so many reviewers are giving it on Amazon, I would say it's the work of a gifted writer who knows how to write in a way that gets under the skin and picks at you like an old Hitchcock movie that leaves you both entertained and disturbed.