Review: The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Roc Trade – Novel: Contemporary, LGBTQ – Buy it here – Our Rating: All the Pipes

Sarah Crowe left Atlanta, and the remnants of a tumultuous relationship, to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house’s former tenant-a parapsychologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on a desolate corner of the property. And as the gnarled tree takes root in her imagination, Sarah risks her health and her sanity to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago…

When I finished The Red Tree, I went back to reread the faux editor’s preface, hoping to tease out the contradictions and outright lies. Of course, there was nothing there. I found no great revelation that hadn’t been clear from the start, which shouldn’t be surprising. The Red Tree isn’t a novel that wants to be simple or tidy.

I came across the novel on a list of top lesbian novels. I avoided reading it, despite the rave reviews, because between the cover and the horror element, it just didn’t sound like my sort of novel. To be clear, I’m a novice to horror. I’ve read nothing in the genre besides the scraps of Poe that no American high school student can escape. The supernatural tends to squick me. But promises of good writing are enough to overcome my strongest of biases, and I purchased the book. Needless to say, I’m glad I did.

To start at the start, yes, this is a lesbian novel. Of course, that bears explaining because there are two types of lesbian novels. The first type, which is by far the more abundant, are novels about lesbian identity. They’re Bildungsroman, all of them, regardless of how old the protagonists are. One woman meets another, falls in love against her best instincts, and must confront how very queer she is. There’s a value in these stories, to be sure, especially in the YA market; we’ve all lived them, these testimonies, and they’re vital to the next generations. But they do get dreadfully dull. And there’s so little lesbian literature for the rest of us, who have grown into our own skin. Sometimes I just want to read a normal, adult novel starring fully self-actualized lesbians. Thank god, or Kiernan, as the case may be, The Red Tree is such a novel.

Meaning, of course, that though The Red Tree is a lesbian novel, it’s also more than a lesbian novel—a great deal more.

Sarah Crowe is a writer who hates writing. A lifelong Southerner, she moves to Rhode Island to escape her past, her deadline, herself. She lives alone in an old house. While digging through the basement, she finds a manuscript belonging to the previous tenant, who committed suicide because of the haunting red tree on the property. This manuscript and this tree become Sarah’s obsession as well. Sarah is a highly flawed character. The novel is in first person, in the form of a diary. She might not be the most likable character, but it’s difficult to remain untouched by the loss of her sanity.

Sarah Crowe remarks early on that digression is her superpower. Well, digression is certainly Kiernan’s superpower. The stream-of-consciousness prose is simply dreamy. It’s littered with allusions, digressions, profanities, inanities, and high self-deprecation. It’s smart and harsh and raw, just as befits the protagonist. It’s irreverent and unreliable and utterly captivating.  It’s the sort of narrative you can fall into. It’s the sort of writing I read to find.

The novel is atmospheric, slow-brooding, and episodic; it reads like a dream, and not just because of the frequent dream sequences Sarah records in her makeshift journal. The tale is surreal, and just a little absurd, but all the more compelling for it. Rather, it’s a dream within a dream within a dream. The mystery is multi-layered, like Russian nesting dolls. There’s this parodic repetition at work, from Kiernan to Crowe to Harvey to firsthand folklore—writers writing about writers writing about writers. Kiernan draws from Poe, Thoreau, and Lewis Carroll to weave a complex narrative of psychological horror. It’s the tale of Sarah Crowe’s unraveling, as her unshakable guilt over the death of her ex-lover becomes the obsession with the wicked red oak tree. But, of course, as with any great novel, it also manages to be about something else, in this case art and writing, a subtle meta commentary on the artistic mind, process, and temperament.

There is no neat ending, no simple answer. There’s nothing neat or simple about this novel and expecting the ending to be anything less than complex would be unfair. It’s a post-modern solution, really—rather, a solution that isn’t. The line between what’s real and what Sarah makes up, consciously or unconsciously, blurs the farther you read. Everything must be doubted.

It’s brilliant. That’s what this review has been building toward, so I may as well say it. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree is brilliant. It really is the sort of book I read to find. Cerebral and complicated with sublime, dreamlike prose and a tortuously ambiguous ending—not to mention lesbians. It’s everything I could possibly want in a book.



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