Saturday, April 10, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan
ISBN: 978-0-451-46276-3


Sarah Crowe left Atlanta, and the remnants of a tumultuous relationship, to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house’s former tenant – a parapsychologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on a desolate corner of the property.

Tied to local legends of supernatural magic, as well as documented accidents and murders, the gnarled tree takes root in Sarah’s imagination, prompting her to write her own account of its unsavory history.

And as the oak continues to possess her dreams and almost all her waking thoughts, Sarah risks her health and her sanity to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago…


My Thoughts:

The Red Tree is the best book I read in all of 2009 and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that it may also be the best book I’ll read in 2010. The first time I read it, I read through it in one day, only taking breaks for food – it was a sort of mad-dash through this 380 page narrative that left me feeling haunted and wistful and wanting more. I finally caved, giving in to the craving and re-read it now and when I finished the last page I had a strong urge to just flip back to the beginning again and start over once more. There is something so beautiful and terrifying in this story.

Let me get my gripes out of the way. Really, there is only one and that is that the book ends as it inevitably must end. The Red Tree is my “stranded on an island book.” It’s a book that could keep me satisfied for years and years. Okay, enough of my unabashed gushing.

Writing a review of this novel is really difficult, because I feel like no matter what I say it won’t do it justice. I’m not sure I have the right words to express the intricacies of the narrative, the allusiveness, the deep unconscious impact of Kiernan’s prose.

I realize I still haven’t said anything specific or concrete and I don’t know how to say anything without possibly spoiling the book, but I’m going to have to say something.

Caitlín R. Kiernan has a gift that transcends her amazing use of language and pushes her into the realm of mythmaking. While reading The Red Tree I began to feel reality subtly shifting around me. The narrator’s journey into what can be explained as either madness or the strange malevolent mythology of the red tree pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. It leaves you puzzling out the clues and details and wondering endlessly about what is real and what is madness. Kiernan’s ability to draw on emotion and dreams, her talent for blending and molding what is real and what is not is breathtaking.

I think part of the emotional impact of this novel comes from the first person narration – a stylistic departure from Kiernan’s earlier works which are written in third-person. The apparent confessions of Sarah Crowe, her digressions, her self-deprecation in the journal entries make you feel close to her and that’s the big trap and once you’ve stepped too close you're lost in this impossible world. It doesn’t matter if the world Sarah Crowe sees is real or if it’s a delusion, because you’re invested in her even if you don’t always like her. I love the way Kiernan employs unreliability in her narrator. It reminded me of Nabokov’s Pale Fire for some reason. Another specific thing I really loved was the use of dream sequences. The nightmares added another layer to the intricate web of reality vs. delusion.

The setting was well-chosen and the atmosphere of isolation and loneliness played a large role in the appeal of the novel. Wight Farm is a creepy house and the surrounding area sounds like it might get really unsettling if you’re just alone out there.

I’m starting to feel as though I’m just rambling on and on, so I think I will bring this review to a conclusion. I love this book. You should read it.

I am going to add a warning here: Since this book deals with intense emotional issues and delusions, and because it is so powerful I wouldn't recommend it to people who are feeling depressed or psychologically unstable.

A quick note on the images: the first is the official cover; the second is an alternate cover.

Anyway – best book of 2009, strong contender for best book of 2010. You should read this book.

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