"Pine" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Doubleday
Written by Francine Toon
2020, 336 pages, Fiction
Released on 23rd January 2020
My curiosity is always piqued by supernatural thrillers set in my homeland of Scotland, and Francine Toon’s debut novel Pine makes excellent use of its location from the remote Highland landscape to the encroaching forests and the unpredictable weather. No exaggeration: It rains all the time! I do not want to misrepresent Pine; this is a very literary novel which contains elements of the classic gothic ghost story, it is not genre fiction. But if you’re after a thoughtful and atmospheric read which relies heavily on childhood, family conflict with an underlying ghostly theme, it is worth further investigation.
Pine is written in the third person and flits between a few characters, however, the principal players are ten-year-old Lauren and her broken-down father Niall. The pair live on a small holding outside a tiny village near the Moray Firth of the northeast coast and Lauren is old beyond her years, mainly because she has no mother and her father has alcohol problems, is unpredictable and unintentionally neglects his child. They live hand-to-mouth with neighbours keeping an eye out for Lauren because of the obvious problems her father has.
The remote locality is crucial to the success of Pine. Everybody knows the business and secrets of their neighbours and gossip about the father and daughter is constant. Children roam free in the local forests and Lauren has a strong friendship with a local boy from a neighbouring farm. These childhood scenes are amongst the strongest of the book and although I would not call Pine a coming-of-age novel; the struggles Lauren has at school, her relationship with her father, and her longing to know more about her family’s past do nudge it into that vicinity. If you fancy experiencing a slice of northern Scotland life and you don’t fancy a trip seventy miles north of Aberdeen, Pine nails it. I grew up not a million miles from where the action takes place and it took me back forty years and dug up some memories. It is loaded with standout moments, including an unsettling bullying scene on the school bus, which resonated very strongly with me.
For much of Pine the supernatural theme is very low key and kept on the backburner, perhaps too far back for some readers, and ultimately is side-lined in the final third, which is more of a thriller. I’m not sure how well the two styles blend, as the family drama concerning the relationship between Lauren and Niall, not forgetting the absent mother, is considerably more convincing than the sightings of the bruised and gaunt looking woman who makes several ghostly appearances. Considering Lauren’s mother Christine disappeared when she was a baby, there is little suspense in who this mysterious woman genuinely is, and the manner she is presented is slightly bland. There are other references to paganism and the occult which are obvious and rather clunkily added to the story and they do not add anything to proceedings.
Perhaps this does not matter too much, as at its heart Pine is most convincing when it focusses upon the relationship Lauren never had with the mother; she dreams of understanding by examining old photographs. Other kids whisper about her at school and Lauren feels that the whole town knows more about her mother than she does. This is a tiny village and even though the disappearance is ten years old, it remains a topic of discussion and the youngster picks up morsels of gossip from snatches of overheard conversations. The appearance of the mysterious woman, and her father’s familiarity with her, only make these feelings stronger. Lauren clutches at objects connected to her mother, such as her old lipstick her father has kept, and these very personal scenes had more kick than anything otherworldly.
Pine has a convincing support cast which makes the plot richer and more believable, including neighbours who have their own marriage problems, teenagers with issues and an overwhelming sense of loneliness, which is only heightened by the isolated location. The author cleverly uses Lauren’s childlike innocence to add to the mystery and because of this the reader is never quite sure of the extent of the squalor the pair live. Niall is not the most likable of characters, but after finishing Pine you leave with a much better understanding of why he behaves in the way he does.
This is an intriguing character-driven novel with a delicate supernatural touch. The ten-year-old Lauren steals the show, followed closely by the striking and authentic Scottish location. Maybe I’m a wee bit homesick for the rain, sleet and wind in my face?
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