The New York Times
A novel set in a small town in Canada that examines the aftermath of a murder/suicide in a close-knit family from multiple perspectives.
The New York Times
Swan's gloomy, uneven first novel (after The Deep and Other Stories) explores how late 19th-century smalltown Canada deals with a horrific crime. William Heath leaves his native England with his young family, eventually landing in Emden, Canada. But just as the family is feeling settled, William is accused in the local paper of embezzlement, and as the scandal peaks, William kills his family. He's sentenced to death, and the novel is taken over by a cross-section of locals-a teacher, a doctor, a boy curious about the facts of the crime-who share their thoughts about the Heaths. These sketches demonstrate the author's writerly talents, but with each section, the plot drifts further afield to little effect. Though there are plenty of beautiful passages, the novel's structure undermines any emotional connection made early on. (Feb.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
And then he was running through the long grass, wiping at the blood that made it hard to see but not slowing, still running. The roaring fell away behind and he knew that meant his father would turn on one of the others, that his mother would step into the worst of it, but he didn’t care; at that moment he didn’t even care. Still running when he reached the edge of the wood, dodging the whips from the spindly first trees, leaping and tripping over fallen, rotting trunks, running and running toward the dark heart of it. Not even slowing, not thinking when he saw the low, curved branch, jumped and pulled with his thin arms, climbed like an animal, bare toes gripping, until he was up where everything swayed and whispered, green leaves all around.
He wiped at his face again and felt the way his eye was swelling shut, tried to quiet his gasping breath. He didn’t know what had brought the sudden kick, the fist to the head, but it wasn’t worth wondering about; there was rarely a reason that anyone would recognize. He would have to go back, he knew that, but knew too that if he waited long enough his father would have worn himself out with the thick leather strap, the leg of the broken chair. Would have collapsed onto the bed like one of those mossy, fallen trees, battered knuckles trailing over the side.
His shirt was so thin it was like nothing at all and the rough bark scratched at his back where he leaned. He was well below the top of the tree but he could still see the whole world, see the long waving grass that had closed behind his escape, the green furred higher fields, the tilting cottage with a needle-thin spire of smoke rising. He could see the rutted track, curving away to the village, another clump of trees and the slate roof and highest windows of Bray Manor. When he turned his head a little there was a smudge of dark blue that he thought might be the sea, days away, and beyond that he didn’t know, only that it would have to be someplace better.
Somehow after that first time he could easily find his way to the same tree, as if it was drawing him in, pulling him toward it and up and into the center of the green world. He knew there were creatures, spirits in the trees, but he wasn’t afraid. Knew that if they had marked him out there was nothing he could do but believe it was not to do harm. He stole away when he could, often leaving things undone, and the way he climbed became like a well-worn path, one foot here, both there, the gouges where his toes fit, the bole under his clenched fingers. Once, from his perch, he saw his mother stepping out of the dark cottage doorway; that’s who it had to be, although he was too far away to make out more than the faded shape of her. A few chickens came skittering, as they did when they heard the swish of her black skirts, but maybe he imagined that; from where he was the chickens would have been no more than shivers in the air. There or not there, his mother’s hands must have been empty and she raised them and clasped them behind her head, tilted it back, and wedged in the vee of branches he did the same. There was a rare ray of sunlight that he supposed was warming her face and he tried to imagine how that felt, but the sun didn’t reach him in the green heart of the wood, no way he could put himself in her place.
After a moment, no more, his mother turned back inside, and he picked up the knife from the spot where he’d balanced it, went back to his work. The idea to carve his name had come from somewhere, maybe the look of certain gouges in the bark, and he had slipped his father’s knife from the jacket pocket, holding his breath. The babies watched him with their old eyes, but even if they could speak, he didn’t think they would. There should have been time; he knew the sun would be high before his father snorted himself awake. But the tree was ancient, the wood like rock, like iron, and the tip of the knife snapped off, fell sparkling down through the leaves. He knew that the beating for a broken knife would be worse than for one that was missing, so he hid it in a hole he scooped out at the base of the tree, climbed like a pirate sometimes, the worn handle clenched between his teeth. He soon gave up the idea of his whole name, and worked instead at the straight lines of his initials. The wood was like iron and it was taking so long, but that was all right. He was still just a slip of a boy, a clout on the ear could send him flying, and he knew that he would have to be bigger, stronger, before he could leave. Thought maybe the time it would take to scrape out the letters would be a good measure. In fact, he was sure of it; it was one of the things he knew, in the same way he knew that he was just waiting here, that it was never meant to be his life.
Sometimes he sang while he worked, his voice twig-thin like his mother’s at night, when she whispered about the trees that leaned over the green river. His own tree was so old, the branch so thick, that no sap welled in the wounds he made, but he knew it was there, deep inside. Knew that as surely as he knew that one day he would have money and a steep-roofed house with high windows, a family of his own that he would cherish. He knew that he would find the life he was meant to have, somewhere far from this terrible place, that all would be well, that one day people would know his name.
Copyright © 2008 by Mary Swan. All rights reserved.
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