Fiction – paperback; Henry Holt and Company; 207 pages; 2008.
Mary Swan is an award-winning writer of short stories. The Boys in the Trees is her first novel.
The story is set largely in Canada in the late 19th century (although there are earlier chapters set in England) and spans several generations. It explores the repercussions of a horrendous crime that is committed by William Heath, the head of a young family, who is later tried, convicted and executed for his deeds.
A wide cast of characters, including William’s wife, Naomi, the local doctor and a school teacher, each take it in turn to tell their version of the story.
The prose and rhythm of the writing is truly delicious. Swan has an eye for detail and is very astute at conveying emotion, atmosphere and the inner workings of the heart without resorting to cliche or sentimentality.
The subject matter is dark, and there’s no denying the claustrophobia of the story’s setting, but that’s not the problem I had with The Boys in the Trees. For much of the time I simply could not get a handle on the narrative, which felt disjointed and ephemeral. Swan leaves a lot of the work to the reader, an approach which I normally enjoy (hence my love of Jennifer Johnston, who’s made a career of letting the reader join the dots), but in this instance there seemed too few clues to allow me to make sense of the tale.
I suspect the narrative was weakened because each chapter feels like a story in its own right, rather than part of a wider novel, but even so, the very heart of the book felt too elusive for me to appreciate. I’m conscious of the fact that Swan did not want to tell William’s side of the story (as she reveals in a Q&A at the back of my edition) and I appreciate that people often do terrible things for unfathomable reasons, but I would have liked to have known a little bit more about him if only to get a better handle on his motivations.
There’s no doubt that The Boys in the Trees is a haunting tale, one that brims with evocative language and closely observed detail, but the way in which it is told makes the characters and the community within it too distant and elusive to truly work as a cohesive whole.