Francine Toon’s debut novel Pine opens with a young girl and her father driving on a darkened country road in the Scottish Highlands. They’re heading to the nearest settlement – a tiny collection of houses – to go “guising”, or trick-or-treating. Among the surrounding trees, they see a lone figure in a white dressing gown. This apparition haunts the following story, coming as close as young Lauren’s own fireside – where the lady in white is a hideous night-hag, barefoot, moving oddly, incapable of eating, wiping herself from the memory of any adult that encounters her – but otherwise seen in glimpses, as the weird and supernatural hovers over every aspect of Lauren’s childhood.
“Lauren’s mother disappeared almost ten years ago. Now, when a local teenager goes missing, it’s no longer clear who Lauren can trust.” While this summary on the proof copy reflects some aspects of the story, it’s actually a lot weirder, far more slow-moving, and framed in a way that resists narrative convention. The missing teenager incident, for example, doesn’t occur until the novel is three-quarters over, and kicks off an extended sequence of pure gothic and serial-killer terror which was an absolute joy to read. The pacing reminded me of Andrew Michael Hurley’s slow-burn works of folk horror, in which mood and setting are layered upon each other for the majority of the book, before – suddenly – it all tips over. It’s a testament to Toon’s intricate control of the world of her novel that it doesn’t feel like the narrative is holding out on us – we’re simply being placed carefully in the tiny community of Clavanmore and given all the backstory and secrets we’ll need to appreciate the horrors to come.
The bulk of the novel focuses on two main characters – Lauren and her father Niall – and their relationship. Lauren is ten, written with an affectionate sense of the logic and sudden whimsies of childhood – she runs for no reason, picks up sticks and reeds, and builds a rather pointless “den” in the woods with Billy, her only real friend. She’s achingly aware how young she is, but lives in an adult world in which she’s burdened with big secrets. We realise very early on that Niall is probably suffering from depression, drinks too much, and he and Lauren are extremely poor – which doesn’t escape notice in such a small community. Toon presents this with a real lightness of touch: for example, Billy’s mother invites Lauren round because they’re making apple scones, and says – off-hand – that as they’re going to EuroDisney, there’s lots of new food that needs to be “cleaned out” of their fridge. Lauren, in turn, covers for her father – and is utterly unable to fool the grown-ups around her. The apparition or night-hag which exerts its influence on the adults of Clavanmore is a neat way to explore the terror of a child forced to see their parent “under the influence” of alcohol, grief, or rage, and Lauren’s point of view is frequently heart-breaking.
It would be easy to make Niall into an unsympathetic character, but he’s not. His acknowledgement that “I’m no the best father” is weighted with all the despair of being asked, continually, loaded questions like: “Still got your wee girl and that?” by people he’s known all his life. And he’s horribly embroiled in the missing-teenager mystery – seeing her last in some teeth-clenchingly awful circumstances – but still utterly human.
It’s in evoking this small and claustrophobic setting that Toon’s writing really shines. Clavanmore is “four houses dotted along the road; a constellation of lights among the dark fields” where “the wind sounds like a dog whose owners have been away too long”. The uncanny, or the folk weird, is never far away – whether it’s someone carving a turnip for Samhain, the smears of blood in a bathroom sink, or the stone circles which start suddenly appearing everywhere. The strange continually intrudes into the familiar – dogs bark at something outside while children watch game shows on TV, and apparitions are seen at crowded ceilidh dances – because, as we find out, “someone like [Lauren’s missing mother] never really leaves, ken.” This absence, and the gossip and speculation surrounding it, gives the early novel much of its tension. Lauren is surrounded by omens, signs, and tries to use her mother’s tools – Tarot cards, a book of spells – to make sense of the gathering supernatural, while at school there’s a whispering campaign about the girl whose (witch) mother disappeared, and bullies pick on her unwashed clothes and her poverty. The incident in which Lauren’s coloured pencils – bought from the supermarket as a treat – are all snapped is beautifully underplayed, but a wonderful depiction of Lauren’s world in microcosm.
Toon’s novel delivers very effective unsettling moments: sudden screams of radio static over Billy and Lauren’s walkie-talkies, a hideous gaunt woman in a dirty dressing gown, a man with a cloak of moss crawling with beetles. This builds into a darkly satisfying sequence towards the end of the novel in which there’s an absolutely tangible fear for Lauren’s safety. However, the way the “mystery” of the missing girl unravels could have been – in my view – a little more succinct, or signposted earlier in the book. It’s perhaps an inevitable feature of a young narrator like Lauren that there’s so much she can’t understand or experience, but my only real concern with the story was that – having built carefully to a terrifying climax – the unravelling took too long and lost some of its momentum.
Pine is beautifully written, and its isolated location – with the wildness of the forest and the claustrophobic feeling of a small community in which everyone is hiding something – is intricately realised. I’m a real fan of folk horror, and this is a novel in the best traditions of the genre, building slowly into its horrors, seeding the weird alongside the mundane. But the real star of the show is the painfully believable father-daughter relationship and its lingering sense of sadness and poverty.
Pine by Francine Toon is published by Doubleday. Buy the book.