Thursday, 24 April 2014

Cannot see the forest...

This odd, sparse novel begins powerfully but ebbs away into something that feels more like a first draft, or a children's book without the narrative pull a good children's book would demand. When Ann and Thomas Thornton's baby girl, Harriet, will only quieten within the boundary of the local woods, her harassed parents take the dramatic step of buying a tumbledown house under the trees to win back some sleep and restore sanity to their lives. However, while Thomas loves their newly-isolated home, Ann finds the forest oppressive after she recovers from her months of sleep deprivation. Two men parallel the Thorntons' story; Raymond, a silent farm labourer, and Keith, a factory worker with a chip on his shoulder and - as he sees it - a demanding set of women to look after. Keith, in particular, echoes Thomas's concerns about being a good provider and an admirable man.

The oddness of Into the Trees lies in the fact that it feels like a set of notes for a much better novel. The set-up is definitely promising. Harriet's mysterious crying and the woods that act as both sanctuary and threat, alongside a couple who can't think straight because they haven't slept for so long, feels like the opening to something satisfyingly dark and atmospheric (mirroring the wonderful cover). However, Robert Williams fails to capitalise on any of this. The woods themselves are barely described and so possess no sense of individuality, and their fearsome presence is pared down to a few throwaway lines from Ann. Even more frustratingly, Harriet's crying is never returned to, and seems to have been used as a bizarre plot device. She has an older brother, but the two children are barely distinguishable throughout the rest of the short novel and do not seem to react differently to the woods. Indeed, the woods themselves are sidelined by more familiar threats as the plot develops, and the title seems to become less and less relevant.

I can see what Williams was trying to do with this novel, and I like the idea of a tale told in simple prose that is slightly detached from the real world. But I'm afraid I've been left a bit bemused and bewildered by the lack of effort that seems to have been put into place and characterisation and the sense that there is nothing that really needs to be said. Unfortunately, I don't think I will be trying any more of Williams' work.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from Faber & Faber via NetGalley.

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