|Cover by Julia Lloyd|
Titan Books, 8 September 2020
Available as: PB, 507pp, e, audio
Source e: Advance e-copy
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Ghost Tree via NetGalley to consider for review.
Christina Henry is one of my favourite fantasy authors and I've enjoyed her dark reworkings of classic children's stories (Alice, Peter Pan) as well as folktales and mythology.
In The Ghost Tree, all of this is fused into a chilling and effective folk horror, with a generations-old act of violence and a curse afflicting the population of midwest American town Smiths Hollow. The results are acted out every year with pain and loss in the collective behaviour of the townsfolk, but it's a party to which outsiders are definitely not invited.
Now, though, things seem to be going wrong...
The book focuses on Lauren diMucci, a young woman whose father Joe was horribly murdered a year before. Lauren misses her dad, to whom she was closer than her mother, now single parent Karen. The book very tenderly draws out the tensions and alienation between mother and daughter, their relationship laced with guilt, general teenager-ishness and something else - a resentment that can't be articulated, a dark poison between them. Smiths Hollow seems to have forgotten Joe's death and the police have done little to identify the killer. Maybe Lauren can do better?
Lauren's relationship with childhood friend Miranda is also key. The girls used to be inseparable, playing fantasy games in the woods outside the town ('Meet me by the old ghost tree!') But Miranda is now changing, spending more time thinking about boys and plotting what she must do to secure a ride to school in Tad's car this year instead of riding her bike or getting on the bus like a loser. This book (set in the mid 80s) does shine a harsh light on patriarchy, showing how the two friends take different routes through a deeply misogynistic society, Miranda avidly collecting sex tips from magazines, unaware how she's being gossiped about and pigeonholed, while Lauren accepts the role of freakish outsider, of tomboy. It's perhaps inevitable that the friendship is under strain - I found the portrayal convincing, non judgemental and eliciting sympathy for both girls (Lauren missing her father, Miranda subject to remote control parenting by chilly, unempathetic parents).
Then there's David, Lauren's brother, only four years old who comes across as something of a savant but also as a very, very vulnerable little boy. There are visions, a suggestion of dark conspiracies and of secrets in the apparently sweet, prosperous little town. It's all deeply sinister and the reader can be sure that the darker side of town is there, biding its time.
Lauren does, however, have allies in exposing what's wrong. In the way of things, it's an outsider who most clearly sees what's wrong. Alex (Alejandro) Lopez, a newly appointed policeman who's come from Chicago hoping for a more peaceful life, begins to dig into the past, aware, somehow, that this won't be looked on kindly by his peers and superiors (though he can't understand why). Quite apart for that investigation, his very presence, and that of his family, is enough to stir racist hatreds as well as fears that secrets will be exposed. Those, two, will be played out in the town's collective guilt and ritual of forgetting.
This may sound like an awful lot for a horror story to carry, but Henry weaves together her themes deftly, maintaining the tension and the mystery while allowing us - in the form of a fairy story - enough background to have an idea what's going on. There are a couple of characters who I felt could have done more - Lauren's grandmother, and Riley, the journalist who breezes into town - but really, those central relationships - between Lauren and Karen, and Lauren and Miranda - are important enough that there probably isn't much space for anyone else, and they give the story so much heart and so much drive that this really isn't important.
Another thumping, wonderful read from Christina Henry, a book you just have to sit down and finish whatever else is going on. Also a story that's cannily honest about not typing things off neatly: I don't think Smiths Hollow will ever be the comfortable, happy place that Mayor Touhy wants - just too much has happened.
For more information about The Ghost Tree, see the publisher's website here.