Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan

Synopsis (via Goodreads): 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…

Review: Caitlin Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, is a fantasy thriller about the hypnotizing mysteries of an old and decrepit estate located in the backwoods of New England. Written in the form of a diary penned the estate’s newest tenant, Sarah Crowe (a published author and a bit of a recluse), it takes us through Sarah’s daily ruminations as she slowly falls under the spell of the strangeness that surrounds her.
            In the opening pages of her diary, Sarah recollects the reasons for her relocation. Having just ended a tumultuous relationship with her girlfriend, she’s drawn to the quite peacefulness of rural New England, the perfect place to finish a book she’d been commissioned to write. While trying to find inspiration for her story, Sarah begins to explore the house’s hidden corners and stumbles upon an old manuscript written by a former tenant. This manuscript is a collection of all the odd and unexplained tragic events that have occurred on the estate over the years. Despite the stories’ dark and eerie nature, Sarah’s interest in what she’s reading grows. The more spooked she gets, the greater her affinity becomes.  
            Seemingly out of nowhere, Sarah’s solitude is interrupted when another tenant moves in. Constance immediately changes the story’s dynamic and we are struck by how abnormally knowledgeable she is about the house, the old manuscript, and about Sarah herself, more knowledgeable than a mere stranger could ever possibly be. Her disruptive presence enhances the eeriness of the story.
It is around this point that Sarah’s narration also begins to change, shifting from a routine log of events into a less refined and sometimes disconnected rambling. New information surfaces about a mental health disorder. A more complete picture is formed about what happened between Sarah and her former girlfriend. The narration becomes neurotic and patchy, quickly condemning Sarah’s credibility. Soon we start to question whether what she’s telling us is still the truth and not a spin-off of the fictitious work she has been so hard pressed to finish.
            Overall, The Red Tree is very complex and suspenseful. Having a narrator that cannot be trusted was a unique reading experience. Even now, a few months after I’ve finished the book, I still don’t know what to make of the whole story. The best I can do is say that it reads like a David Lynch film: revisiting it again and again might lead to multiple interpretations, yet something about the story will forever remain elusive and misunderstood.

LitSnit Verdict: B

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