It’s a common criticism of Canadian fiction that many of our authors produce bleak and depressing books. Mary Swan fits this rather unflattering profile, but in her case, it works. Her first novel, The Boys in the Trees, relies on a horrific event and the melancholy of her characters to set the tone and shape the narrative. Were it not for her ability to imbue each chapter with a slight twist, as well as hints of interesting tidbits that lie under the surface, the book would be unsettlingly depressing.
Set primarily in the late 19th century, The Boys in the Trees tells the story of the small fictional town of Emden, Ontario, after an unthinkable crime is committed by one of the townsfolk. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, but rather than being disjointed, the novel feels complete, like a lively conversation with many participants. Swan uses the effect of the crime on each narrator as a connecting thread, weaving an intricate web that provides glimpses into each character’s story, without sacrificing the importance of the central figures, William Heath and his family.
Swan’s writing continues to build on the strength of her previously published short stories, including “The Deep,” which won the 2001 O. Henry award. Her characters, especially the children, are painstakingly drawn and detailed. Oddly (or, perhaps, wisely), it is only William who is left a bit blurry around the edges – who he is, and what drives him to commit the acts he does throughout the rest of the novel, remain almost entirely unexplained.
This is a story that, despite its bleakness, is a joy to read. Swan’s writing is both emotionally challenging and technically skillful. A beautifully sad success.