As I have to still to capture my thoughts about the other NTTVBG title I read, because I was and remain ambivalent, I thought I’d be more organised for today’s title which will be discussed in depth chez dovegreyreader. It helps too that my thoughts are quite clear on this one …. in fact, I can describe the novel in one word ….. maddening!
The premise is interesting. An unspeakable crime and a botched execution are stones that are thrown into the water; the impact on the lives of those in the small community, the ripples that flow ever outwards. Yet the further from the centre, the weaker the ripples. That for me is the fundamental flaw with the structure. The stories of those who were in direct contact with the criminal were intense. Those who were one step removed, while interesting in their own right, less so and the overall effect was patchy.
The story of William Heath and his family, which constituted the first 50 pages, was incredible. At the same time though I was irritated by constant breaks in the narrative, describing medical symptoms and procedures. Their foreshadowing relevance became clear at the end of the chapter which ended abruptly with a heartbreaking tragedy. It’s a stylistic trick that I would have accepted in a short story - a device for the telling of two stories in parallel. Once I’d finished the novel, I discovered that the chapter in question had previously been published as a standalone short story. It’s a pity the author didn’t revise it so that it flowed better within the context of this “novel”.
“Novel” in inverted commas because The Boys in the Trees is, in reality, a series of short stories that do not weave together to form a cloth. They’re well-written in themselves. I had no problem getting into character each time – whether that be Heath’s tragic wife, his doctor, his daughter’s friend, her teacher. I did have problems leaving them behind because Swan does have a skill in creating characters to invest in. But picking up a character only to drop them again leaves too many loose threads. A case in point -
Lying in his soft bed he (Mr Marl – William Heath’s landlord) thought how unfair it was, the things people whispered; it was never about the money.
End of chapter, change of narrator, (I flung the book away at this point – only page 78) and never are we told what it was about! Did I say, maddening? I obviously meant infuriating. I only read on for the book group.
Swan threw the stones far too early and the demise of William Heath left no character of substance to drive the narrative forward. We knew his crime and his punishment. We knew the downward spiral that started in Britain, but the mystery of the exact circumstances that led to his catastrophic decision was never fully resolved. That was the story I wanted to hear. Such a shame that it was one that the author chose not to tell.