Pine by Francine Toon

A friend lent me this to read, something I might not otherwise have done, because it’s one of those books that has its marketing blurb in its title on Amazon. As a lifelong contrarian, I often take against marketing, particularly in publishing. I’ve previously written about my hatred of books with “girl” in the title (I know I’m not the only one), especially if a title has been changed in translation (step forward Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, possibly the most egregious example). In fact, and happily, I think the jig is up with Girl Titles, because People Have Noticed.

So, to Pine, or Pine: The spine-chilling, atmospheric debut of 2020 to give it its full title. I like to think of its author, sitting in front of her word processor, adding those words to her own title with a shit-eating grin on her face. Would that we all had such shameless front.

A book I might have sniffed at on principle, then, because (and I speak as someone who used to work in marketing) there’s never really any need for it, is there?

What is Pine: The spine-chilling, atmospheric debut of 2020 all about then? Is it, in fact, spine-chilling? Is it, in fact, atmospheric? Is it even “of” 2020?

The cover tells you very little, especially if you are blurb blind and always ignore the Notable Quotes. Clearly there’s some marketing push here, you can’t help but notice. It’s almost as if the author works in publishing.

Not that I’m bitter.

Lauren (who was once Oren) is a somewhat spacy (or spooky) pre-teen, an unearthly child living alone with her father Niall in the Scottish Highlands (or, if you’re me reading the first 100 pages or so, the wilds of Canada). They’re out trick-or-treating, or guising as it’s called in the first of the occasional Scottish dialect words that pepper the prose. Niall seems a bit distant and uninvolved; Lauren, in the meantime, is curious about the older teenage girls who live in her community. Lauren’s mother went missing a few years before.

Driving home, a figure stumbled out of the woods in front of the truck. Niall stops and helps her into the passenger seat. Lauren sits on Niall’s lap. When they get home, Niall stokes the boiler and offers food. The young woman they’ve picked up doesn’t speak. Niall doesn’t speak about it to Lauren. When she wakes in the morning, the young woman from the woods has gone.

And Niall doesn’t remember her.

So, yeah, in places this is a bit goose-bumpy. But there are also levels of anxiety set up around the neglect of a child; it’s a portrait of grief, with elements of threat and magic, and you’re never quite sure what happened to Lauren’s mother. I’d say I spent 80% of the time feeling anxious, especially towards the end. But there is one scene in the last third that had me lying in bed with every hair on my body standing on end.

It’s pacy, controlled, intriguing, dark, and sometimes distressing. And if that’s your thing, you should probably read it. I thought the resolution was somewhat abruptly handled, and there are many hanging threads. While a couple of major questions are answered, there’s much left to feel anxious about on Lauren’s behalf.

(A brief word about the book design. It’s an attractive paperback, with fold-over flaps, allowing for more blurb space. On the other hand, the flaps kind of get in the way and are vulnerable to getting bent. The typeface is Plantin, Tschichold’s riff on Garamond, and it’s a solid choice. But, oh, how my hands had forgotten how to hold a book. Partly because I was trying not to bend it too much, as it doesn’t belong to me, but I seem to have lost all strength in my book-holding muscles. Also, though, the outside margin of the pages was really narrow, leaving you nowhere to put your fingers.)

%d bloggers like this: