Published by Faber
A suspense-filled coming-of-age story set in the grips of summer
IT’S the last day of school before summer holidays, and a car packed with teens, pre-teens and a mother at the end of her tether is making its way home. Tempers flare, one of the pre-teens is removed from the vehicle to find her own way back, which she hasn’t done by the time her worried older sister, and our narrator Libby, sets off for her babysitting job.
There’s a palpable tension to the start of A Crooked Tree that doesn’t really go away, even though Ellen, the ejected child, does return within a few hours. She has escaped from a possible abduction, from the clutches of a sinister figure the siblings nick-name Barbie Man, but while this frightening encounter forms the skeleton of the story, the muscles and tendons, organs and veins are fleshed out with a story that deals with grief, disappointment and the realisation that our elders can be devastatingly flawed.
Taking place over the course of an early 1980s summer in Philadelphia, the Gallagher siblings are recently bereaved of their father, an Irish emigrant who, judging from Libby’s frequent recollections, never truly settled into life in America. Though their parents were divorced, it’s clear that their mother is suffering badly from the loss too, a viewpoint the reader can see while her children are almost blind to it.
Libby tells the story from a first-person narrative, and while the innocence and burgeoning maturity of a fifteen-year-old is evident, the reader also benefits from the distance between the narrator’s youthfulness and the writer’s subsequent experience.
The mid-teenage years are arguably the most fraught of adolescence; the lure of adulthood beckons in the form of smoking, drinking and crushes, but there is still a yearning for childhood pleasures that contradict the inevitable passage through the ages.
The writer gets across this conflict extremely well; the crooked tree of the title is a misshapen tree that Libby and her friend Sage have used as a hideout, to read and hang-out, more recently to smoke, which is being used less and less frequently, but serves as a fitting setting for the denouement of the story.
The transition period of summer so crucial to young people worldwide is the perfect time to set this coming-of-age story in which a lot of growing up is done. The family loses its first-born, Marie, to a summer job in the city before she heads off to college, so her previously anchoring presence is felt when Barbie-Man makes another appearance.
Marie is an influential presence in her siblings’ lives, an individual not afraid to express her own style and work hard to get good grades. She is the one who brings Wilson into their lives to assist after Ellen’s almost-abduction. Wilson is a local young man with a bad reputation, but whose estimation in Libby’s eyes rises while her deep suspicion of him abates as the summer, and all that it brings, goes on.
I was brought to mind the writing of Anne Patchett, specifically her novel The Dutch House, and Christine Dwyer Hickey’s wonderful The Lives of Women while reading Una Mannion’s debut. All evoke this turning point in young women’s lives with great skill and care and are masterful in inhabiting young people’s voices without condescension. They also all feature strong-willed girls who realise their own worth, who act in mentoring rolls towards other, more vulnerable characters.
Another common link between the three is a critical but understanding eye over the behaviour of the older adults in the community. Libby looks up to the woman she babysits for and idolises her father but is both fearful and disapproving of her mother. When her eyes are opened up to failings of some and the progress of others, her very own worldview begins to change too.
A Crooked Tree is a multiple-character study, with beautiful attention to detail and boasting a lyrical, sometimes even poetic prose. The climax, I found, was too fantastical in contrast with the rest of the narrative, and I almost wondered if a dream sequence was to be revealed. But it doesn’t take too much away from the overall enjoyment of the book, which is brimming with atmosphere and nostalgic, sepia-tinted colour.
- First Published in The Tuam Herald on 24 02 21