The Boys in the Trees, by Mary Swan

This remarkable novel is a mystery like no other I’ve read. There is a crime, to be sure, but we know who did it and more or less why. Swan ignores the conventions of the mystery genre and instead explores the effects of the crime on the inhabitants of the small town where it occurred. While moving forward in time linearly for the most part, each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character: the father as a child hiding in a tree, the mother telling of her children’s births, the doctor who treated one of the girls, the playmate of the other, the girls themselves.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of narratives with multiple points of view. Perhaps I am simply becoming a crotchety curmudgeon, preferring the sustained 19th century narratives—my first favorite reading—to the frenetic jump-cutting of some modern novels. And it’s true: I prefer to have only one window open at a time on the computer, and cannot stand the little commercials that have started popping up in the corner of the television screen over the last few years. Perhaps I’m too easily distracted, or too linear a thinker.

I prefer to believe, though, that it’s just a very difficult task, writing multiple points of view, and most writers who try just aren’t up to the challenge. Some, though not all, are successful when alternating chapters between the perspectives of two or three characters. Even then, the stronger narratives employ these changes in succession rather than going back and forth with each chapter. Worst of all is when we jump from one character’s head to another within a single scene.

Here, each chapter stays with a single character. Although I found it a little confusing at first, the quality of writing was such that it was worth making the effort to reorient myself at the beginning of each chapter. Swan uses little imagery, relying instead on the things of this world to take us into the lives of these people living, first in England at the end of the 19th century, and then in a small town in Canada. We inhabit each character, whether it is a little boy sneaking out of the house before dawn and walking through the sleeping town, a woman watching the image appear the first time she develops a photograph, or a man gradually growing more inebriated as he sits over a long dinner with other men of the town trying to make sense of the events that have engulfed them.

Turning the last page, I was startled to realise how invested I had become in these people and their town. Even such short accounts bring out the depth of emotion, the reality of these lives. Together they make up a mosaic reflecting our fractured reality, our distinct perceptions and personal filters. Just as individuals must function within the web of society, so these stories together reveal the cumulative effects of this crime and its aftermath and left me thinking about the lasting effects of a single incident. There are many turning points here, often small events in themselves—decisions made, undeserved hardships endured—that gradually shape these lives. I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that we are changed and molded, even our very brain chemistry altered, by the happenings large and small that make up our histories.

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