REVIEW: Pine by Francine Toon

Fragments of conversations held between adults and easily misunderstood.

I have, in past reviews, articulated my belief that while Horror is poised for a return to mainstream success; the publishing industry is struggling to find an idiom that will allow them to promote those kinds of books. They know that they don’t want to return to the days of glossy black paperbacks with luridly drawn skulls but they are still searching for a viable alternative.

Commercially successful and recipient of an armful of literary awards, Francine Toon’s debut novel Pine is fascinating case study in how the publishing industry’s first instinct is to twist, bend and contort themselves in an effort to avoid calling something a horror novel. The front cover of the edition I own is fashionably minimalist with a stag in silhouette against a neutral background. The hype mentions tension, crime, death, and the fact that the novel is scary but the closest it comes to slotting this novel into a genre is to refer to it as a ‘gothic thriller’. In fairness… that’s actually a pretty good description of an intensely atmospheric novel that is dripping with doom and rustling to the sound of conversations held just out of earshot.

The action takes place in the Scottish Highlands. Lauren is a ten year old girl who lives with her father Niall. Niall is a big, dumb metal fan who struggles with parental responsibility and has a tendency to drink too much and fall asleep in his car. While this is more than enough to mark Niall as a terrible father, most people seem to give him something of a pass given that his wife has up and disappeared, leaving him to deal with a quiet little girl.

Things get off to a bad start when father and daughter are driving home one night and Niall takes it upon himself to pick up a hitch-hiker, a dark haired woman wearing nothing but a dressing gown. Lauren takes this somewhat unusual event in stride but is perplexed to discover that not only is the mysterious woman gone by morning but her father denies having ever seen her.

No sooner have we started to think that this might be setting Pine up to be a story about a serial killer, Toon pulls the rug out from underneath us with a series of creepy scenes in which the woman in a dressing gown appears only to be immediately forgotten. In one particularly chilling scene, a neighbour calls up Niall claiming that his long-missing wife is wandering around her garden only for her to suddenly reverse course and ask Niall what he wants and why he is calling her. Strange woman in a dressing gown, you say? What strange woman in a dressing gown?

Pine is one of those impressionistic novels where the narration sits so close to the characters that your vision of the world is obstructed by their presence. Toon writes in short, orthogonal sentences that don’t so much flow as overlap. Attempts at meaningful conversation dissolve under a torrent of how-are-you’s and what- did-you-say’s. Any attempt by the characters to sit down and work out what might be happening is disrupted by sense data and emotional reflux. This sense of the world being too cluttered to process is only amplified by the large cast of characters who are forever turning up and asking questions about food or baby-sitting.

Lauren sits at the centre of the book like a little island of calm. She focuses on the stuff that’s right in front of her and the things that make her happy but this clarity of focus only serves to make the social gyre seem more puzzling and intimidating. Indeed, one of the book’s more powerful motifs is the way that Lauren’s introversion and her Dad’s declining reputation result in her getting bullied by one of the wealthier girls in her class. Rather than resenting the bully, Lauren just seems puzzled… she knows that something has changed, that a shift in the world must have happened, but she can’t make sense of the change and recognise that her Dad’s weird behaviour and escalating alcoholism is marginalising both him and his daughter.

This sense of Lauren being ‘locked out’ of an adult world determined by conversations held out of earshot is echoed in the way that Toon makes use of the supernatural: Clearly, there is something at work here. Clearly, the community is being visited by some sort of ghost. Clearly, there is some connection between the ghost, the disappearances, and Niall’s seemingly unstoppable decline into out-and-out alcoholism but the nature of that world and the rules that govern it somehow never slip into focus. We overhear fragments of conversation and glean the odd bit of information from different people chatting but it never quite adds up. It never quite makes sense. The closest that novel comes to a character who straddles the various worlds is a woman named Diane who is either an adult or a teenager and either a drunk or a witch. She seems to know things and she seems to straddle different worlds but she comes across as a bit too weird and unapproachable to be any sort of guide.

Pine is a beautiful novel that tells a stark almost minimalist ghost story with real literary panache and psychological insight. The ideas are simple but the execution is breath-taking.

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