I'll struggle to convey the mesmerising effect of this stunning debut novel, but I'm going to try. Something about the author's mastery of language, the gentle rhythm of her sentences, the rich descriptive prose, all combine to create a sense of mystery and intrigue from the first page to the last. I hesitate to say this, but I'm going to anyway: as I was reading The Qualities of Wood, I was reminded of the exquisite writing of Marilynne Robinson, prizewinning author of higly acclaimed novels, Gilead, Housekeeping, and Home.
I was transported to the woods behind a white clapperboard house in the American Midwest, and I was lost to them. The story is about Vivian, an artist (and how evident that is in her imaginings - the author herself must be an artist to paint her characters in such subtle yet vivid hues) and her husband, who is a writer.
I won't give away the plot, but the story explores Vivian and Nowell's relationship during a time of upheaval while they take a year out of their city lives to renovate Nowell's grandmother's house. A girl is found dead in the woods behind the house; locals are suspicious, and so is Vivian. Whispers and rumours abound, adding to the sense of intrigue as Vivian tries to settle into small-town life and make friends with her neighbours. Who can she trust?
It's a compelling story but there's another, remarkable, aspect to this novel. In The Qualities of Wood, the wood where the girl is found seems to take on a life of its own - a strange and haunting quality that I found enthralling. The prose seemed to me to represent the trees themselves, with each sentence standing alone, spare, strong, beautiful. As tension builds, so does the hypnotic effect of the writing, as if a gust of wind is whipping up behind us urging us on, and light begins to filter through the dense canopy above. And as light is shed on the mystery of the dead girl, so it begins to illuminate Vivian and Nowell's relationship.
Mary Vensel White paints a sky as brilliant and as beautiful as I've ever seen, and an atmosphere as enthralling as I could wish for. I urge you to read this lovely book - it's wonderful.