There has been a recent trend among some journalists in Canada to instantly dismiss what has been termed, often derisively, as "Canadian gothic." Although the term is vague and not precisely defined, it is essentially accepted as dark, tragic, nineteenth-century rural Canadian narrative (for example, think Wuthering Heights transported to the Bruce Peninsula). Given this provisional definition, The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan falls into this category, but it would be a mistake to overlook this fine novel simply based on this categorization.
The Boys in the Trees is a heartbreaking tale of a terrible tragedy and how it transforms (and informs) a community, offset with notions of how memory, responsibility, forgiveness, and knowledge shape lives. The story asks the reader how memories of the past affects the life one lives now, how responsibility is to be determined when actions cannot be predicted, how forgiveness is essential to a contented life, and how knowledge about one another, and memory of the past, is necessarily incomplete.
The novel begins and ends (as its title suggests) with vignettes of boys in trees. The trees at the beginning of the novel offer refuge, a safe haven from abuse and despair for a young boy named William Heath, one determined to escape his miserable existence and determined that one day people will know his name. The trees at the end of the novel provide a vantage point another group of boys to witness the final results of a tragic choice.
After the brief vignette in the trees, we next see William as a young man with a family living in England. He is beset by a first brutal onslaught of tragedy that causes the family to flee to Canada - first Toronto, then the fictional town of Emden, Ontario. However, William is unable to escape his feelings of anxiety, despair, and failure that have accompanied him since childhood, setting the stage for a second and even more brutal tragedy. It is this tragedy that is dealt with in the remainder of the novel, with the citizens of Emden reflecting and acting upon their impressions of what happened. Swan is masterful here at describing the ripple effects of a tragic singularity on the lives and memory of those involved with the Heath family.
Swan writes in a resolutely non-linear format that suits her examinations of knowledge and identity. In particular, the second and third chapters are composed in fascinating contrapuntal narratives that slowly converge into their respective tragic conclusions. The remainder of the novel consists of individual non-linear narratives (recollections of the citizens of Emden at various points in time) that slowly offer the reader additional insight into the characters and events of the first three chapters yet leave many questions unanswered, signifying that the causes and motivations behind many events are ultimately unknowable, even by those closest to them.
One narrative follows a young boy named Eaton, a neighbour and friend to the Heath daughters. The tragedy provides a defining point in Eaton's life, and assigns an infinite value to a secret gift that he will carry with him for the remainder of his life. Questions of guilt and responsibility continue to haunt Eaton even as his memory fades in old age.
Another narrative follows the Robinson family and how the main tragedy relates to and interacts with another within their own family. Again, questions of guilt and responsibility are examined, with a possible answer provided in the notion of forgiveness. Hints at guilt possibly lying elsewhere are suggested throughout the Robinson family narrative, and additional facets of the Heath family are provided by the Robinson women.
These narratives ask us: what can we really know of a person from their external appearance and outward actions? Swan shows that we can only glean facets, glimpses of knowledge that no matter how numerous will never coalesce into a whole, or even a reasonable representation of a whole. And moreover, this imperfect knowledge is ultimately doomed to fade away with the people holding them. Nevertheless, these accumulated facets can provide a rich description of characters and motives, even with many questions remaining unanswered.
This is remarkable debut by Mary Swan. It has been nominated for the 2008 Giller Prize, and in my opinion is the best of the four nominees I have read (having yet to read the Joseph Boyden entry, and not likely to finish it before the award is presented). I strongly urge anyone interested in the future of Canadian literature to read this book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.