Source: Review copy
Publication: 23 January 2020 from Doubleday
They are driving home from the search party when they see her. The trees are coarse and tall in the winter light, standing like men.
Lauren and her father Niall live alone in the Highlands, in a small village surrounded by pine forest. When a woman stumbles out onto the road one Halloween night, Niall drives her back to their house in his pickup. In the morning, she’s gone.
In a community where daughters rebel, men quietly rage, and drinking is a means of forgetting, mysteries like these are not out of the ordinary. The trapper found hanging with the dead animals for two weeks. Locked doors and stone circles. The disappearance of Lauren’s mother a decade ago.
Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards, hoping she might one day be able to read her father’s turbulent mind. Neighbours know more than they let on, but when local teenager Ann-Marie goes missing it’s no longer clear who she can trust.
It is an enormous pleasure to be starting off the blog tour for this strong and contemporary novel.
Pine is a beautiful, fabulously evocative novel, set in a small village in the midst of the Highlands where all around pine trees create a world of shadows. Lauren lives in the village with her father Niall, a shadow of his former self, given to bouts of melancholia and drinking ever since Christine, his wife, Lauren’s mother disappeared.
Lauren was so young when her mother went tries to channel her through her alternative therapy books about spiritual healing through crystals and reading the cards. Christine was a free spirit, and Lauren is hoping she has inherited some of her more mystic qualities, as she practices reading the tarot through the cards. She never does get answers though as to what has happened to her mother, or why her father is so withdrawn much of the time.
Gossip about what happened to Christine is of course rife in the small village and Lauren is bullied at school for the very severe offence of being different.
As the novel opens, Lauren and her father are driving through the forest after an evening of guising with her childhood friend Billy at Hallowe’en, when a woman falls into the road in front of them. Niall drives the woman home to their cottage but in the morning when Lauren gets up, she has vanished.
Francine Toon has created a beautiful, unnerving setting where a child is in the half life not quite yet on the cusp of becoming an adult, trying to understand the maelstrom of emotions that are running through her; neither part of the younger children’s group nor yet adult enough to form a serious relationship. With no woman to guide her, Lauren is caught in that half –life between child and pre-pubescent woman.
Toon flawlessly paints a rich and unsettling canvas where the forest is a dark blanket wrapped around the village and setting it apart from the world; a gothic, eerie place at night especially. It is the character of the forest that gives the book it’s hushed, claustrophobic feel and allows Toon to play with elements of the supernatural, witchcraft and folklore in the writing.
But Pine is not just a gothic novel; rather it is a completely contemporary work which looks at the impact of small village life on a community when one of their own, a local teenager goes missing. Suspicions grow, whispers surround Lauren everywhere she goes and the tension builds as this community tries to reconcile itself to the fact that this disappearance has echoes of what happened to Christine a decade ago.
Niall’s drinking gets worse, his anger seems barely suppressed and Lauren feels that there are things she’s not being told, but which remain frustratingly out of her grasp. h It seems that someone has once again threatened a woman of the village and caused her to disappear. There are those in the village who are not prepared to see history repeat itself.
Pine has a strong sense of love and longing, a pining for lost loves. But it is also a novel about darkness and sexual violence and how women can stay strong in the midst of darkness and oppression.
Verdict: Beautifully written, powerful storytelling that sets a haunting, evocative scene and uses that to tell a story that weaves Highland folklore and mysticism into an eerie and suspenseful modern and surprisingly tender gothic story. I loved it. Highly recommended.
Francine Toon grew up in Sutherland and Fife, Scotland. Her poetry, written as Francine Elena, has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Best British Poetry 2013 and 2015 anthologies (Salt) and Poetry London, among other places. Pine was longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award. She lives in London and works in publishing.