Pine, Francine Toon’s debut novel, feels like the perfect book for the stormy February we have endured. I read the book over the weekend in which Storm Ciara struck the UK and it completely and utterly absorbed my attention.
The novel tells the story of Lauren, a young girl living in the Scottish Highlands with her father, Niall. They are both considered odd by the community. This is mainly due to Lauren’s mum who disappeared a decade previous never to be seen again, with rumours circulating that she may have been a witch. Lauren has picked up some of her mum’s habits including reading tarot cards. One night, when driving through the woods Lauren and Neill come across a woman in a dressing gown emerging from the woods. They take her home and look after her but come the morning she is gone along with Lauren’s dads’ memories of her. This is the jumping off point for a story dripping in all the gothic menace you would expect of a story set in the Scottish Highlands.
I loved reading this book. The atmosphere created by Francine Toon is wonderful. The tension is never broken and the whole book oozes mystery, intrigue and an under-current of fear which left me thoroughly unsettled while reading it. The Scottish Highlands is the perfect setting for a story such as this. Like the way Andrew Michael Hurley often uses the location of his stories as a character, Toon uses the woods, the rain and the darkness as a plot device to help drive the story forward. Lauren never feels completely safe, least of all in her own home with its strange leaks, broken lights and lack of heat. Even in the daytime, when Lauren and her friend Billy go off into the woods to play there is a real sense of danger. This is never spelled out for the reader, there is never a definite threat which we fear instead it is as if the forest itself is what we should fear. This is so effective as a horror device and I wish it was used more often in books and films.
The characters of this book are another aspect which I loved. They are incredibly complex and multi-faceted. Just when you feel like you have a handle on who somebody is and how we would expect them to behave, Toon changes our perceptions and once again leaves us unsettled. The most complex and interesting character is Lauren’s father, Niall. An alcoholic filled with rage at the loss of his wife. He might sound like a stereotype at first, but as the story unwinds, we discover his love of playing music, the crush he has on a local woman he is doing some work for and the complicated love he has for Lauren. On the one hand, he clearly adores her, but he seems unable to come to terms with the way she reminds him of his wife. He shouts at her, bakes her pies, keeps rooms locked and refuses to tell his daughter the truth. I sympathised with Niall throughout the book despite him making some less than okay choices. It would have been very easy to make him a caricature, but Toon refuses to do so.
Not one of the characters in this book feels like filler or is anything less than fully realised. It is an adage in writing to treat each character as if it is your main character and this is something Francine Toon does with aplomb. I found myself thinking about the characters for many days after the book was finished and this is all credit to the wonderful character development on display.
The supernatural plays an important part in the story. It is never exactly clear what is real and what is imagined by Lauren, a technique those who read a lot of gothic fiction of this style will be familiar with. There are strange dreams, creepy power cuts and inexplicable occurrences aplenty. This is crucial to the tone and execution of the story as without them the whole premise falls pretty quickly. I do, however, have some issue with the way these factors are used in the resolution of the story. They feel somewhat forgotten in the last part of the novel as the story unfolds and go from playing a key role in the story to not really seeming to have that much relevance. I would have liked there to have been more about the supernatural aspects of the story at the end. However, I also understand why Toon decided against this and it really is a minor complaint in what is an otherwise superb book.
The ending itself is majestic. Clearly, I won’t give away what happens, but I absolutely loved it. Often with these kinds of stories the author either offers a resolution which feels far-fetched and ruins the entire tone of the story or leaves things so obscure that we are left to draw our own conclusions with the story. Now, I have no issue with the second kind of ending. It works incredibly well in some of my favourite stories; however, it was extremely refreshing to read a book which didn’t baulk from giving the reader a real definite conclusion but also managed to make the ending feel interesting and fresh. I really do marvel at the craft on display in the final pages of Pine as we are masterfully led to its conclusion. It is a real pleasure to read.
To sum up, Pine really is brilliant. If you have read and enjoyed anything by the likes of Andrew Michael Hurley or Lucie McKnight Hardy, then I guarantee you will enjoy this book. Its setting is intoxicating, its characters engrossing, and the story is a rollercoaster from the first page to the last. I don’t know what else you could ask for from a spooky winter read!