THE BOYS IN THE TREES by Mary Swan (Holt), 207 pages, $15.50 paper. Rating: NNN
This first novel by Mary Swan doesn’t have a narrative throughline, let alone a climax, but that kinda doesn’t matter. It’s a strangely beautiful book.
In a fictional small town somewhere in central Canada, William Heath has killed his family. We know he’s been accused of embezzlement, but why this seemingly loving father would go on this kind of rampage remains a mystery, especially to the town doctor, to the woman who taught Heath’s daughter Rachel, and to Rachel’s schoolmate Eaton, whose adolescent feelings get roiled by the details of the case.
In a series of internal monologues and seemingly unconnected scenes, the book tracks the personal struggles triggered by the killings. Images and emotions come in waves as the narrative shifts perspective and time, effectively evoking grief, guilt, even morbid fascination.
Swan creates some vivid characters – especially Sarah, the obssessed temperance activist, and Dr. Robinson, a man too busy to notice important things going on in his own family.
But if you’re the kind of reader who likes a page-turner or a mystery that gets resolved, Boys In The Trees will not give you much satisfaction. As the narrative, such as it is, floats toward what should be a key plot point – Heath’s execution, described with devastating precision – the strands never get tied up in tidy ways.
So be aware – what reads to me like an intriguing literary experiment may feel like pretentiousness to someone else.
Swan reads as part of the Harbourfront Reading Series Wednesday (February 20).