Friday, June 4, 2010

Red Tree

I just finished reading The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernin, which is a creepy, tension-filled, and thought-provoking book.

I remember reading a short poem that ends: "Love doesn't exist/Does it?" The poet sounds cynical throughout the poem, jaded and uninterested, but the question at the end signals that she may still hope for love, despite her protests. In The Red Tree, the main character, Sarah Crowe is a respected and experienced writer, who is emotionally vulnerable and seeking solitude after separating from her partner. Sarah seems like a pragmatic woman who early on refers to those who talk of ghosts as "crackpots," but, in the back of her mind, recalls the memory of a surreal encounter in a mud pond in Alabama when she was a teenager. Then, Sarah confronts a crescendo of signs of the supernatural. As Sarah experiences things she fails to explain logically and rationally, her willingness to say that the supernatural doesn't exist, like the author of the poem about love, gives way to a doubtful and frustrated questioning: does it?

Sarah initially isolates herself in a farmhouse in Rhode Island, but, then, another tenant named Constance rents the attic. In a trip into town, Constance tells Sarah about a walk along the cliffs by the ocean, when Constance saw a woman dressed like a Goth in a new, antique-styled dress. Constance says the woman pulled a gun on herself, resting it against her own head. Constance responded by telling the woman that she didn't need a gun, because the fall alone from the cliffs would kill her. The woman lowered the gun and, then, completely vanished. Constance researched town history and found the story of a woman who told the mirror of her story - the woman was about to commit suicide; described Constance; heard the warning; and saw Constance disappear. According to the history book, because of the interaction with Constance, the woman reassessed her decision to die and went home.

Constance theorizes to Sarah that maybe ghosts aren't images of the dead, but that time collapses for a moment so we meet briefly with people who are otherwise from the past or future. Constance suggests that somehow strong emotions can rupture time. Sarah gets annoyed, retorting that it's funny how emotions would bring one person a savior through time but ignore another person's need. Sarah disagrees with Constance by turning to the same argument that people use in contesting the idea of destiny: it's too unfair for some force to intentionally condemn some and save others. Constance's sea cliff story is a side note within the main plot, but an interesting take on how to define a ghost.

Plus, Constance's story is another step for Sarah as Sarah moves away from just making jokes about the supernatural and begins reading omens. Layers of stories about and hints of the supernatural collect to form the context in which Sarah finally feels powerless, merely a chain-smoking, journal-writing game piece waiting for the Red Tree to checkmate her.

I'm not going to write anymore, because I don't want to spoil the book. So, read it.

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