Nestled in the pages of Francine Toon’s debut novel Pine lies the story of a father-and-daughter relationship. Outsiders on the outskirts of Scotland, Niall and Lauren are an unconventional family unit struggling to move on from the disappearance of Lauren’s mother some years back.
The stigma and suspicion surrounding that event are still alive and kicking in this Highlands community, but Niall refuses to confront it or discuss it with his daughter. All but one photograph of his wife is hidden away in a locked room in their isolated house.
During Oíche Shamhna (Oidhche Shamhna in Scottish Gaelic), as father and daughter return from the traditional Halloween stopovers at the neighbours’ homes, a waif of a woman steps onto the road in front of their vehicle. Her stay in their house is brief but it has a massive impact on Lauren and leads to more sightings of this mysterious woman in and around the pine forest close to their home.
When a number of neighbours deny the woman’s existence and clutches of stone circles appear about the town, Lauren begins to question her own mind, compelling the young girl to seek information on her mother’s past, clues as to why she might have left when Lauren was just a tot.
From the outset, we are introduced to a lost child, suspicious of neighbours and distant from her father. The anxiety and curiosity of the 10-and-a-half-year-old is captured so well throughout and is nicely offset against the newfound awakening of a child to the grown-up world and its pitfalls.
Lauren is becoming interested in the lives of the local teenagers and is beginning to look at her friend Billy that bit differently. Here is a child who is discovering her father’s flaws and becoming aware of her place in the world, or her lack of place. At times we are left with the idea that perhaps the pines represent the encroachment of adulthood, discovering the unknown and those secrets deliberately kept from her because she was too young to cope.
Lauren looks for guidance in the supernatural. She owns a book of spells and has learned how to read palms and the stars. Gradually, we see similarities between Lauren and her missing parent and how loss and neglect are leading to isolation and bullying in school. It’s these passages that create the most drama in the book and, with an atmospheric slow-burner of a story, it’s a theme that might even have been pushed to add further tension to the plot.
If Lauren is drifting in the ether, her father is knee-deep in the soil. A seasoned, hands-on mould of a man, there’s an earthiness to the language when we’re in his domain, reminders of an old way of life that still forms so much of his present. He is a hunter of rabbit, pheasant and fox. He mends fences and builds furniture. But he is also a heavy drinker, losing whole evenings to the bottle and on the cusp of losing everything else.
Emotionally, there appears to be this internal battle, the notion of escapism at war with the demands of responsibility and complications of parenthood. He just about manages to stay afloat through ignorance, the distraction of hard graft, and simple principles, such as the one he has when it comes to playing in a céilí band:
“They are men who know what they must do: keep time, keep together and get drunk people up on their feet and out of breath.”
Over the years, he has become quite skilled at burying “all thoughts and all potential for thoughts”, and his guilt-laden disposition raises a number of questions as the story unfolds. Where has this shame derived from? What part might he have played in his wife’s disappearance?
And how much truth can be gleaned from second-hand conversations and foggy memories of the woman, “… her among the drumming circles and poi dancers and tightrope walkers, reading palms, eating apples and getting high as the shadows lengthen, her blunt Highland vowels changing”.
There’s a nice mix of genres to the book. Elements of the old-fashioned traditional ghost story blend with a modern setting. The shadow of death lurks throughout, unskinned bodies hanging in the garden and kitchen, a dog that carries an unexpected surprise home for its owner, and the trapper who died in the house they inherited from an uncle.
Toon is a poet, appearing in the likes of the Sunday Times and Best British Poetry. Every line has been trimmed of fat and carefully laid out on the page, her grasp of language clearly evident throughout. It’s easy to imagine ourselves as these outsiders, living in a town but never really part of it, drawn toward other outsiders, overly aware of the tics of the towns’ fellow inhabitants.
It’s not a book that sprints at the pace of your run-of-the-mill “supernatural” read. But it has no shortage of imagination and is certainly a work which has plenty of heart.