- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; 1 edition (Jan. 22 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805086706
- ISBN-13: 978-0805086706
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.7 x 20.4 cm
- Shipping Weight: 181 g
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #916,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Boys in the Trees: A Novel Paperback – Jan 22 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Swan's gloomy, uneven first novel (after The Deep and Other Stories) explores how late 19th-century smalltown Canada deals with a horrific crime. William Heath leaves his native England with his young family, eventually landing in Emden, Canada. But just as the family is feeling settled, William is accused in the local paper of embezzlement, and as the scandal peaks, William kills his family. He's sentenced to death, and the novel is taken over by a cross-section of locals—a teacher, a doctor, a boy curious about the facts of the crime—who share their thoughts about the Heaths. These sketches demonstrate the author's writerly talents, but with each section, the plot drifts further afield to little effect. Though there are plenty of beautiful passages, the novel's structure undermines any emotional connection made early on. (Feb.)
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“Intricate, haunting, entrancing, its mystery woven in the texture of the tiny details.”—Tessa Hadley, author of The Master Bedroom
“A lovely poignant novel, the movement of the narrative in time and space as natural and intricate as the movement of waves. The stories seem to be telling themselves, yet they are the product of tender and attentive craftsmanship. . . . After finishing it, I feel as if I am still listening for it. It has the compelling logic of a lingering, powerful dream.”—Hilary Mantel, author of Beyond Black
“[T]he novel is wonderful. The Boys in the Trees reads like a palimpsest, layering significance on significance . . .This is a book that will grow on rereading, and an author who may prove to be a master of the genre.”—The San Francisco Chronicle (2/23/08)
“Swan’s prose is tense, rhythmic and emotionally evocative . . . with its forceful observations and willed ambiguities, this challenging and often beautiful book can be as unsettling—and sometimes maddening—as a long look in the mirror.”—The New York Times Book Review
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this book is dark, poetic, with characters that are dynamic and a structure that is truly original and keeps the mystery flowing. we get the point of views of many characters in the town, but never the character that actually perpetrated the crime we are interested in. but the crime itself is not the point of the book, more how the crime ripples out and effects many people over time.
read it if you like books that are darker and a bit twisted, and original in voice and structure. don't read it if you like easy, linear, and light.
The Boys in the Trees is a heartbreaking tale of a terrible tragedy and how it transforms (and informs) a community, offset with notions of how memory, responsibility, forgiveness, and knowledge shape lives. The story asks the reader how memories of the past affects the life one lives now, how responsibility is to be determined when actions cannot be predicted, how forgiveness is essential to a contented life, and how knowledge about one another, and memory of the past, is necessarily incomplete.
The novel begins and ends (as its title suggests) with vignettes of boys in trees. The trees at the beginning of the novel offer refuge, a safe haven from abuse and despair for a young boy named William Heath, one determined to escape his miserable existence and equally determined that one day people will know his name. The trees at the end of the novel provide a vantage point for another group of boys to witness the final results of a tragic choice.
After the brief vignette in the trees, we next see William as a young man with a family living in England. He is beset by a first brutal onslaught of tragedy that causes the family to flee to Canada - first Toronto, then the fictional town of Emden, Ontario. However, William is unable to escape his feelings of anxiety, despair, and failure that have accompanied him since childhood, setting the stage for a second and even more brutal tragedy. It is this tragedy that is dealt with in the remainder of the novel, with the citizens of Emden reflecting and acting upon their impressions of what happened. Mary Swan is masterful here at describing the ripple effects of a tragic singularity on the lives and memory of those involved with the Heath family.
Swan writes in a resolutely non-linear format that suits her examinations of knowledge and identity. In particular, the second and third chapters are composed in fascinating contrapuntal narratives that slowly converge into their respective tragic conclusions. The remainder of the novel consists of individual non-linear narratives (recollections of the citizens of Emden at various points in time) that slowly offer the reader additional insight into the characters and events of the first three chapters yet leave many questions unanswered, signifying that the causes and motivations behind many events are ultimately unknowable, even by those closest to them.
One narrative follows a young boy named Eaton, a neighbour and friend to the Heath daughters. The tragedy provides a defining point in Eaton's life, and assigns an infinite value to a secret gift that he will carry with him for the remainder of his life. Questions of guilt and responsibility continue to haunt Eaton even as his memory fades in old age.
Another narrative follows the Robinson family and how the main tragedy relates to and interacts with another within their own family. Again, questions of guilt and responsibility are examined, with a possible answer provided in the notion of forgiveness. Hints at guilt possibly lying elsewhere are suggested throughout the Robinson family narrative, and additional facets of the Heath family are provided by the Robinson women.
These narratives ask us: what can we really know of a person from their external appearance and outward actions? Swan shows that we can only glean facets, glimpses of knowledge that no matter how numerous will never coalesce into a whole, or even a reasonable representation of a whole. And moreover, this imperfect knowledge is ultimately doomed to fade away with the people to which it belongs. Nevertheless, these accumulated facets can provide a rich description of characters and motives, even with many questions remaining unanswered.
This is remarkable debut by Mary Swan. It has been nominated for the 2008 Giller Prize, and in my opinion is the best of the four nominees I have read (having yet to read the Joseph Boyden entry, and not likely to finish it before the award is presented). I strongly urge anyone interested in the future of Canadian literature to read this book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.
I think what a lot to do with it was the writing style. The vantage point of who is telling the story is not always that clear. The plot jumps around a fair amount and I found myself spending more time trying to determine who was saying and doing what, as opposed to enjoying the book and the story telling.
I picked this book up because Mary Swan, the author, had been recommended to me. I'm not so certain that I will be as quick to recommend her to others. I'm hesitant to categorize this novel as 'chick lit' but it definitely is not your standard fiction novel. Perhaps it is because the novel is set in the 1800s Canadian landscape.
In any event, I'd have to say "pass" on this novel if you're looking for a book to read. There are much better books out there, just crying to be read.
Aside from this... I found an average story to be well written.
Ms Swan is a very capable writer. The prose is crisp, it's uncluttered, it suits the subject. There's very little 'wrong' in what she's written here. Except 'for me' in a storytelling sense.
I'm not a dumb bunny, but there were times when I was confused as to just what was going on, and who the characters were. I know what she was doing with her 'style', I knew it as she was doing it. This didn't help.
There was a fine story here to be told. Just not 'again, for me' told this way. It bordered on pretentiousness, the flitting about of reference points, of narrative perspective. I wanted to be done with the book half way through, I was fed up.
I'm not familiar with Ms Swan's work, though short fiction seems to be the core of her background. This makes sense, in retrospect: a novel is an entirely different creature from a short story, and some of the skills of each are not the hallmarks of the other. This novel showcases this truth.
All this having been said, I look forward to reading more...in the hope that a different tack is taken next time around.
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