Thursday 19 October 2023

One Man's Opinion: PINE by FRANCINE TOON

I remember the release of this one, how I loved the cover and the name. My curiosity deepened when it won the McIlvanney Prize for the Scottish crime book of the year back in 2020. I'm not sure where the time went. 

I finally lifted Pine  from the pile and began. 

As with so many of the books I read and the films I watch, I had little idea of what to expect. I enjoy the sense of being dropped into totally unfamiliar places and will often avoid blurbs until I'm deep into a story. Pine, I have to say, was as refreshing in terms of its freshness as I might have hoped. Imagine that feeling when you finally plunge into the icy water having stood up to your knees for an age waiting to pluck up the courage; there are pains in private places and your skin burns as if it's been sandpapered off, yet there's a real exhilaration and you keep going until your body finds equilibrium. It was something like that. 

I landed in the present tense, observing a father and daughter in an isolated part of Scotland. There's an intensity to both the characters and a dark and smoky-scented mist that swirls around each character and their isolation isn't entirely due to the small-worldliness of their geographical location.

Initially I was concerned that the quality of the writing and the perspectives would be impossible to maintain. There were a couple of tiny, barely perceptible, stumbles where I worried that fragments of the past that were being shown would become trip hazards throughout, but I needn't have worried. Instead, I became drawn into the story and its supernatural shadows until I really couldn't put it down. 

Naill is the father. He's probably an alcoholic and is certainly depressed. The disappearance of the love of his life has hollowed him out. He's good with his hands, is musical and wants to do better, yet his pain always wins out and drags him into the self-awareness that he's an awful parent. 

Lauren is the daughter. A primary school child who looks up to the older pupils on the school bus and is bullied by her peers. She has a best friend with whom she is building a shelter in the local woods, a mysterious box of spells, crystals and Tarot cards left behind by her mother and an ability to see beyond the physical world. 

While out driving one night, a broken woman appears in front of their car. They pick her up and Niall tends to her wounds. In the morning, the woman is gone. Lauren is curious as to what as happened, but Niall appears to have forgotten the entire incident. 

Naill will soon receive a call from a neighbour who believes his ex-wife has made an appearance. The neighbour will recall nothing of this when asked. 

And unusual things happen. Circles of stones appear in Lauren's life. Her bedroom is tidied by an unseen hand. Something in the house smells unpleasant, but there appears to be no source. There are warnings and a sense that something terrible is about to happen in the community. Which it does. 

Pine's a wonderful thing. The quality of the writing is excellent. Toon creates a multi-dimensional world of exteriors and interiors in a way that suggests she has Lauren's magic box at her disposal. The story is beautifully woven together and the build-up of momentum and tension is paced to perfection. 

As I mentioned, this was the winner of the Scottish crime book of the year not so long back. If I'd have been among the nominees (yes, I know, that's never going to happen) I might have come away from Bloody Scotland with a touch of bitterness. Yes, there is crime in this book, but it's not a crime novel in the way I have come to understand them. That said, I would also have come away thinking that the best book romped away with the prize and wishing that I could pen something as powerful and captivating before my mind goes.

So, if you've not read this yet, I urge you to take the plunge. It's fantastic and deep and enthralling right until the end. 


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