From the Amazon product description:
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. And as the gnarled tree takes root in her imagination, Sarah risks her health and her sanity to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago…
Sarah’s editor, Sharon Halperin, opens the story. In a bold move, the reader is told in the editor’s preface that our main character will not survive this tale. We are given just a bit of background from the editor’s point of view, serving to anchor the story with a sense of reality. Ms. Halperin offers her observations about the house and the red oak tree. If she is to be believed, the house is simply old and musty, the tree is just a tree, and well Sarah was troubled to the point of becoming suicidal. With that, she leaves the reader to Sarah.
Sarah picks up with a journal-style first person narrative. When this is done well, the reader gets to climb into the trenches with the main character or better yet, sit across from her as she has her morning smoke and a beer. This was done very well. I spent the earliest parts of my reading in this book interrupting whatever my husband was doing to share her dialogue. Sarah invites the reader into not only her life but her mindset. She tells the reader what she might have said but also what she was thinking and feeling.
Sarah reveals herself in reflections on her past. She weaves these memories into an intricate tapestry that frames the central story of the manuscript, the oak, and how the obsession with both encroaches upon her writing plans and hopes of solace. What transpires at the house occurs within the space of months, yet you feel it spans centuries because the history of the tree is threaded through the story. That history seems to have an indefinite beginning. As Sarah relates parts of her past, the reader is allowed to see some parallels to the current situation. They are light brush strokes really.
I have to say, Ms. Kiernan nails characterization. Each character is given a strong voice, a clear and full-bodied personality, a past that the reader is not force fed yet still serves to add depth, and a substantial role to play in the story. Words are obviously chosen with great care. Her portrayal of Sarah was honest. Sarah was strong, stubborn, brilliant, insecure, and brutal when necessary, and withdrawn when vulnerable. Sarah sweats. She smokes. She drinks beer. She lusts. She procrastinates. She is talented. She is human.
Ms. Kiernan gives equal attention to Sarah’s new roommate and her partner. So much of this story is told through the artistic works of others. Sarah’s roommate is a painter. Sarah’s ex was also an artist. Splashes of color and context relating to the work also helps set the tone of Sarah’s narrative.
The environment/setting acts as a character in this story. Bodies of water, deadfalls, broken walls, muddy basements, woods that stand witness to the land once cleared, even the lonesome roads all blend together to create this atmosphere. They accompany the tree. Even when Sarah travels from the house, the environment serves the story. It ties in.
The manuscript Sarah finds in the house and its author along with the forsaken typewriter also seem like one character to me. Sarah shares bits of the manuscript with the reader. She investigates its offerings. She contemplates the author’s findings and motives. The typewriter waits patiently or clacks loudly. At times they feel like a lifeline. Maybe if Sarah understands the previous author’s intent, she can unravel something important. It becomes more than a curiosity and begins to appear more like a millstone, unforgiving and irrevocably attached.
This isn’t a gore fest. There are atrocities. Yet, Sarah leaves the reader to their own mental imaging when she explains the documented accidents and murders that are detailed in the manuscript and attached to the tree. This is a slow build. The fear creeps into the reader slowly, almost immediately. It is relentless. Ms. Kiernan is intuitive. She knows exactly how to frighten the hell out of her readers, all the while keeping them firmly planted in their seats, books clutched, pages turning. The reader can’t look away. The story is enthralling. Sarah dies. The reader KNOWS this. That is all we know. The rest Ms. Kiernan reveals in her own time, in perfect timing.
I also need to say a couple of things about Sarah. Sarah is a lesbian. I was so excited to see that she was. Her interactions with the women she was interested in were handled in a direct, blunt way that conveyed an appealing swagger. It was also no big deal. Sarah’s sexual orientation was not central to the story. Her sexuality, however, added depth to the character. I fail with the words here. I just marveled at her delivery of this. It was matter-of-fact. It was perfect.
She also has seizures. Sarah gives us a glimpse of what it is. Again, the delivery is straight-forward. There is no pity involved. This is just her situation and how she deals with it. She also offers her insight as to the reactions of other characters that encounter her seizures.
I wasn’t ready for the end. Rather, I didn’t want the story to end. The novel was a slow, intense read for me. I didn’t want it to be over. My mind was kept busy for days devouring the images and ideas she offered up. I now have four of her books on loan from the library because I didn’t want to let go.
I also have a long reading list thanks to the references she offered throughout the novel and listed at the end of the book. She’s done her homework in the field. I love seeing where she drew inspiration. While this may be the longest review I will ever write, I am afraid I still didn’t get across how much I love this book and why.
I urge you to read it. I think you will enjoy it. Ok you might not if you are only satisfied with romping, non-stop action and gore. There is a touch of it here, in moderation. That is about the only way you might be disappointed. I wasn’t. I wasn’t looking for that to start with. You must actively read this book. You must allow your mind to wander through every offering, every detail or vignette. Let your mind’s eye paint the pictures along with her words. Don’t rush it. It is a very good thing.