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Mary Swan: The Boys in the Trees

Those of you who read the comments on this blog already know KevinfromCanada.  I’ve come to respect his taste and opinions greatly in the last few months since I first encountered him on the Man Booker forum.  I would not feel misguided to read any book he recommends.  How, then, could I ignore his – uhh – fanaticism about the Giller Prize, a book prize I only became aware of during this year’s Booker slump.  Kevin said it had better books.  Due to an unexpected and generous gift, I was able to procure a few of them and begin focusing more intently on Canadian literature, which until now I’ve only known through Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.

Mary Swan is completely new to me.  And I think she’s pretty new to most other readers, too.  There is next to nothing on her wikipedia page – if that’s any indication – and I don’t even know how old she is.  I saw a picture of her in the New York Times, and she looked pretty young, but old enough to have some good experience.  Indeed, she was already accomplished before writing The Boys in the Trees (2008): she won the O’Henry Award in 2001 for her apparently “masterful” short story “The Deep,” which was collected in a volume of her short stories called – get ready – The Deep and Other Stories.  Perhaps some readers of this post can help us get to know Mary Swan better.  I definitely want to now that I’ve been introduced to her skill in this novel.

the-boys-in-the-trees

It was more than Kevin’s good word that persuaded me to buy this book and read it first (I believe his picks for the winner of the Giller were Through Black Spruce, which won, or Barnacle Love).  The blurb on the back of the book, for once, really pulled me in:

In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the intricate and unexpected connections between the people in this close-knit community that continue to echo into the future.  In her nuanced, evocatie descriptions, a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel hammer of a revolver.

Usually I consider blurbs completely untrustworthy; I rarely read them (the cover, on the other hand, is often what convinces me to buy or not to buy).  The gushier these blurbs are, I figure, the harder they feel they have to sell a book.  It was the “grief clicks into place” line that intrigued me so (the “cold steel hammer” didn’t quite negate my intrigue), and on that I chose this as my jumping off point for the broader world of Canadian literature.

In the first paragraph, I was wary of what I was reading.  The first short introductory chapter felt all too reminiscent of the overwritten, melodramatic, attempts at subtlety I found in the pages of Child 44 (please please forgive the inclusion of any reference to Child 44 in this review – this book does not deserve such a comparison). 

And then he was running through the long grass, wiping at the blood that made it hard to see but not slowing, still running.  The roaring fell away behind and he knew that meant his father would turn on one of the others, that his mother would step into the worst of it, but he didn’t care; at that moment he didn’t even care.

I thought, ahhh, the blurb got me!  Thankfully, next to none of the book is written in this style.  In fact, far from being inept, Swan’s style is impressively subtle.  She has the ability to make you feel and understand things that aren’t written.  More on that momentarily.  First, a bit – just a bit – about the plot.

It’s the late 1800s in Canada.  William and Noami Heath, escaping the grief of losing several children to sickness (and maybe escaping some other things), have just arrived from England.  Still, though they are not destitute, they never seem able to get on their feet financially, a problem William has always had.  Eventually, with their two growing daughters, they end up in a small community.  A terrible crime is committed, and there’s a botched execution.  And that’s about all I want to say about the plot.  The book is not about the plot anyway – we know what tragedy happened fairly soon, anyway – rather, it is about how some of the people in the community react internally to the crime and to their own tragedies.  Indeed, though no one really knows the Heaths.  They were a normal family.  No one could have seen it coming:

Like Mr. Luft, these reporters also asked about money.  Said they’d heard about some dishonesty, an embezzlement charge, but all Alice could tell them was that the school fees were paid on time, that the family lived simply, but was far from the poorest in town.  The questions went on and on, until her mother spoke up, loudly.  They were a fine family, she said.  A good, Christian family.  There was nothing different about them, nothing peculiar.

However, these people think again and again about all of their interactions with the Heaths.

It takes most of the book to learn that much about the plot.  Swan reveals the events and the characters so slowly I wondered frequently how she held the cards back so long.  Often this annoys me.  It’s as if the author is keeping back important plot points just to keep the reader reading.  It’s gimmicky, completely artificial, and it’s aggravating to be dragged along not by any interesting characters or by a genuine mystery but rather by a detail that usually doesn’t pay off in the end.  However, in The Boys in the Trees it is no gimmick.  I felt that this method of slow revelation was very effective at showing how the characters’ were dealing with the events in their minds even as they roamed around in their day-to-day life.  Admittedly, at first, it was a bit difficult to follow.  Characters would pop up with common names like Rachel, Alice, Lilian, and Sarah, and Mary Swan does not intervene to give the reader many explicit details about their relationships.  Far from frustrated, though, I enjoyed the method.  It felt like I was really getting to know some people, at first only through their actions, then through little things they say, and then, only later, getting the whole story by putting together the pieces.  In lines like the following, we slowly find out about the death of a father who works at a pharmacy and where he sometimes takes his two daughters:

Later Alice started coming and spoiled it all, but Sarah waited her out.  She had always been good with figures, was already helping with the books and checking the stock, learning to mix the simpler preparations.  While Alice lived her child’s life, giggling with her friends and mooning over words, just words.  No help at all the winter it ended, sobs from behind her bedroom door, from behind their mother’s.  What did they think – that they would survive by magic?

This is also one way we learn that the execution was botched:

He told her how it had been and she said, Good.  Said, He should have suffered.  It was what the whole town had been saying, what Robinson himself might have felt, if he hadn’t seen it.

So if one doesn’t pay attention, it can be hard to follow.  Some books like this are unnecessarily obfuscated.  The author thought it sounded more profound or thought that by making it difficult the books somehow became more worthwhile.  But in this book, the obfuscation is not there just to make one think – here, it makes one feel.  In such a short book I felt I had a wealth of knowledge about these characters and I genuinely cared for them.

Also, this method of slowly revealing the character’s past is incredibly effective at creating a haunting tone.  But it’s also a naturally haunting story with haunting lines (“Thinking about how the dark took the color from everything, how the best that the cold moon could show was shades of gray.”).  There are indications that the oldest Heath girl has visions of her dead siblings (“I had never questioned, never thought before that maybe they were only mind.  The jumping boy, the laughing smudgy-cheeked girl, and sometimes the other who was just a streak of color at the edge of my looking.”).  And all of the characters are haunted by their own past, their own sins.  They dwell in a very noisome silence.

The structure of the book also makes it a bit difficult to follow.  In a way, it is a book of short stories – or, rather, short character studies.  One of the first chapters is entitled: Naomi.  This is the matriarch of the Heath household, but at the time, I didn’t know that.  This chapter is written in the first person.  A later chapter is told from the perspective of the town doctor.  Another from the doctor’s son.  And many are third person accounts about one or two or three other characters.  While sometimes characters from other chapters creep into the narrative, for the most part when you finish one section you finish with that character.  Still, it felt like a novel and not like a collection of short stories.  The narrative push continues through the transitions nicely.

However, for those of you who like resolution, there is little resolution in terms of understanding why things, many things, happened.

There’d be a reason for it, maybe some kind of lesson being taught, but Robinson didn’t care to puzzle it out.  The business of living complicated enough, he thought, and harm done for enough plain reasons without having to dream up new, twisted ones.

And I’m okay with the unresolved here because the book still felt complete.  It still felt like it accomplished a great deal – all that it set out to do.  Sometiems with good but unresolved books at the end I feel I want to read more to know what happens – something feels underdeveloped or simply mission.  But with this one I just want to read it again.

12 thoughts on “Mary Swan: The Boys in the Trees

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: I’m glad you found this book interesting — as you know, I found it wanting, although certainly worth the read. I also suspect that female readers would find it more accessible than I did. Swan (she is in her fifties as far as I can tell) explores the idea of family in a way that is a bit remote for me. Also, it should be noted that Alice Munro — who almost never does jacket blurbs — did one for this book. I would suggest that those who like Munro may find this a much better book than I did. And finally, it was leading the “guessthegiller” poll of readers right up to the end — so a lot of people obviously liked it.

  2. dreamy says:

    Hi Trevor. I came upon your site while searching for reviews for The White Tiger. I’m reading it now but wanted to see what others thought about it. I like your choice of books and am going to be a regular reader of your blog for sure. For so long I haven’t read Roth because I was intimidated, but last month I saw Indignation and as it was really short, decided to read it. And I know everyone keeps saying it’s not as good as his other books, but I really loved it, so what does that say about his other books then? I was very intrigued. Then I read your Ghost Writer and other Roth reviews. Those are all going on my to-be-read pile soon. Thank you!

    I like your Mary Swan review, too. I didn’t love it that much, but I do think it’s good enough that I will be keeping my copy on my shelf. I recently just moved to Canada, too, and am having a great time exploring Canadian lit. So far this year the ones I loved were Peter Behrens’s The Law of Dreams and Rawi Hage’s Cockroach.

    How many days do you usually read a book? One, two?

    PS. I’m reading Octavian Nothing soon, too, thanks to you. :D

  3. workingwords100 says:

    Thanks for letting me know about her. I’ve never heard of her either nor the Giller prize.

    Michael Redhill’s Consolation (check out my review) partly deals with how new immigrants deal with being in Canada, especially the first winter.

    You might also enjoy Jane Urquhart’s works.

  4. Dreamy, welcome! Glad you found your way here! Sounds like we’ll can look forward to your input on many of the books reviewed here so far, and I look forward to any suggestions you have. I definitely think your experience with Roth will only get better.

    You ask about how many days I take to read a book. Well, that depends on a number of factors. When things are going smoothly, I take around two days for a book. Things have not been going smoothly recently – very busy – so I haven’t been able to use my commute to read as much as I’d like. Still, I hope to get through the book in three or four days max. If it takes much longer, then it’s usually because the book is boring.

    Workingwords – I’m going to have to look into your recommendations. I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never really paid much attention or sought them out. Much appreciated.

    I’m also glad to see the varied response about The Boys in the Trees. Kevin and Dreamy didn’t like it as much as I did. I can definitely understand that. I went into it expecting something entirely different and was very impressed with the style and the execution. That tipped the scales for me. It felt like real interaction with people to me: you only know those strangers by a few things they say or by a few mannerisms. Yet we extrapolate a lot from that. Though I have to say, dreamy, after what I’ve heard about Cockroach I’m very interested in why you liked it. It sounded awful to me, though I never sought out anyone who thought it was worth reading.

  5. KevinfromCanada says:

    I second the Jane Urquhart recommendation — she is an excellent novelist who has slipped under the radar, I think. Having said that, skip her last work and go back to the earlier ones — Away and The Underpainter are particularly good. Also, for those who like the Swan, I would recommend Guy Vanderhaage’s The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing. They are set much earlier in time but both provide a different perspective on “settling” the North American West. He too is an overlooked author who deserves better. It is quite worthwhile to contrast him with better known writers such as Stegner (whom I think is brilliant — and it is to Guy’s credit that he merits the comparison) and John Williams.

  6. KevinfromCanada says:

    Sorry, posts are crossing. I am one of those who thought that Cockroach was a terrible book — but given that it made the short list for three different Canadian prizes, others obviously felt differently. I too would like to read a review from someone who liked the book. Most of the mainline positive Canadian reviews could be summarized as “how dare he write this book”, which does not make it very reader friendly.

  7. dreamy says:

    I kind of feel the same with Boys in the Trees and Cockroach. Which is to say, there were things about them that I loved and things that I didn’t. The Boys in the Trees I really liked a lot while I was reading. But afterwards I kind of forgot the feeling. So even though I don’t remember now really what I got from it, I’m keeping it just because I know I liked it while I was reading it. There are just some stories that stay with you and some that don’t, regardless of how well they are written.

    With Cockroach, I actually disliked the protagonist and felt a little disgusted while reading it. But afterwards the story stayed with me. And upon reflection I realize I really like it not based on its literary credibility or anything but on how affected I was, personally, as a reader. I guess it helped that I’m an immigrant, but I definitely do not feel that darkly about my situation.

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    I had the same response to Swan, dreamy — I liked the book when I read it but a few days later it slipped. I understand that it started out as a short story (the final chapter in the novel) and it does read like a collection of short stories rather than a novel. Despite that, I admire the author for her effort and feel the book is worth reading.

    Thanks you also for your comments on Cockroach. I too hated the protaganist and perhaps let my disgust with the rest of the book get in the way of my opinion. Hage is a very angry writer and I did not take to his anger — your response shows that perhaps I was wrong. For a less angry view of the immigrant experience, I would recommend Barnacle Love. I do think it is a superior book and one that captures a better perspective.

  9. dreamy says:

    Hi Kevin, thanks for the recommendation. I was actually thinking of reading Barnacle Love, too. I have heard some good things about it. Do you have a book review blog, too?

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    I don’t have a blog — I’m lazy enough that I just contribute comments to others.

  11. Stewart says:

    I’m lazy enough that I just contribute comments to others.

    And a fine job you do, too.

  12. KevinfromCanada says:

    Thank you, Stewart. There are advantages to being lazy.

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