Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Book of the Month: The Boys In The Trees

                       The Boys in the Trees-Mary Swan


This is a story of what it is to be human.  As I read I saw pieces of myself in just about every character, their hopes, fears, worries and foibles are more obvious, the small joys of life less apparent, and given the time period-the turn of the twentieth century-there is much that we now would consider unacceptable, inappropriate or exceedingly tragic about their lives and what must be born frequently if not daily.  This is the story of a family murdered by a loving husband and father who makes  mistakes and eventually a choice for which he is hanged.  It is never a complete story.  It is also the story of the people living in the same small Canadian town who encounter this family and must experience in their own ways the crime, the tragedy, the execution and as the story unfolds we see how these people are all connected, all making mistakes, all surviving with varying degrees of damage. 

I won’t give away anything that isn’t already revealed on the jacket of this novel, so it’s quite acceptable for me to tell you that it’s written in spare prose that is remarkable for showing so much while revealing so little.   No unnecessary word is used, no embellished description or excessive dialogue, the story is like an expensive garment made with the highest quality materials, sewn with the greatest skill, precise tailoring and original design and yet minimal in embellishment, ornamentation, deceptively simple looking.  It is simultaneously sparse and intricate.

This is not a novel you read for plot, although you will want to know what information is revealed next, what more is there to be learned about the characters and their lives.  The narrative moves backwards and forwards in place and time, while still moving forward overall, adding to our accumulated understanding.  We won’t understand everything though, won’t know all of the whats, hows and whys just as we don’t in real life although we get more here than we would actually get in real life because we are privileged to enter briefly into the thoughts and memories of various characters, knowing their thoughts as they would truly be thought, with gaps, with assumptions of prior knowledge or with the misconceptions we all must live with, piecing together a narrative for ourselves in our own minds.

For most of the novel it was the beautiful prose that kept me reading and it wasn’t really until I was about three quarters of the way through that I found myself reading to find out how it ended, even though I knew it would not be a neat and tidy ending.  The story begins and ends with boys in trees, from where they can look down on events  unfolding, a metaphor for remembering and reminiscing the way all of the book’s characters do.  A tree can be a safe place, it removes you a little from others, perhaps it feels like a temporary remove from the world.  A tree is a resilient thing, not invulnerable but resilient, continuing on although often with scars.

The Boys in The Trees is endorsed by Alice Munro: ”This is a mesmerizing novel-it can truly claim to be filled with a ‘terrible beauty’.”  And if you like Alice Munro’s writing you will like this book for there are similarities to Munro’s short stories where plot is secondary and we often must piece together a story from a character’s memories, coming to us in fragments.


  1. Hmmm...not for me I think. I just finished Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine with my online yoga group book club. How is that for a mix of interests!
    I struggled with that at the beginning like you did and the book club kept me reading, but I was invested in it by the end.
    I find dark stories difficult as I embody them too much. They seep into me.
    Xo Jazzy Jack

    1. That's very INFJ of you. This INTJ is easily detached. ;-) I do get annoyed with long novels that are just one tragedy after another and a depressing ending. This is a common theme in Canadian lit from the east coast and I remember throwing Tess of the D'Urbervilles across the room in disgust. Not a fan of Thomas Hardy, don't find West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet romantic. I don't enjoy tragedy and I would not call The Boys in the Trees a tragedy though I may not have expressed that well. :-)
      An online yoga group book club sounds complicated. xoxo

  2. I love reading bookies about interesting characters, someone with more layers and depth. Most of the books I read have interesting plots but superficial heroes and I can never connect ot relate to them. It's awesome that you have found such a treasure, I am going to google it in goodreads! :D


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