Author: Francine Toon
Publisher: Random House UK
Read: November 2019
Publisher: Random House UK
Read: November 2019
Expected publication: 23 January 2020
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 all the stars!
They are driving home from the search party when they see her. The trees are coarse and tall in the winter light, standing like men. Lauren and her father Niall live alone in the Highlands, in a small village surrounded by pine forest. When a woman stumbles out onto the road one Halloween night, Niall drives her back to their house in his pickup. In the morning, she's gone. In a community where daughters rebel, men quietly rage, and drinking is a means of forgetting, mysteries like these are not out of the ordinary. The trapper found hanging with the dead animals for two weeks. Locked doors and stone circles. The disappearance of Lauren's mother a decade ago. Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards, hoping she might one day be able to read her father's turbulent mind. Neighbours know more than they let on, but when local teenager Ann-Marie goes missing it's no longer clear who she can trust. In spare, haunting prose, Francine Toon creates an unshakeable atmosphere of desolation and dread. In a place that feels like the end of the world, she unites the gloom of the modern gothic with the pulse of a thriller. It is the perfect novel for our haunted times.
Wow! This book just came out of nowhere and totally swept me away in its five-star tidal wave. What a journey! If I had to describe PINE in one word only, it would be “unsettling”. It didn’t help that I innocently started reading it in the evening, and ended up putting in an almost all-nighter to get to the end, followed by some pretty strange nightmares – which you will totally understand once you read this book for yourself.
Talk about creepy! From its atmospheric, rural Northern Scotland setting to its characters and the supernatural events (or are they?) that ethereally drift in and out of misty forest roads, the story had me on edge the whole time. What I loved most about this book, and which deserves a whopping five stars from anyone looking for a spooky read, is that it achieves this seemingly without trying. This isn’t the contrived, try-hard ghost story you so often come across when looking for a haunting read. I’m not sure how Toon does it, but every single, innocent word on her pages was infused with a gentle but unmistakeable sense of menace and danger. The most unsettling scenes wouldn’t withstand translation if I tried to tell them to you, as they are built on fleeting impressions and seemingly innocent happenings, like the dripping of water, shadows on the wall, voices in the dark. It took my breath away!
Let’s also talk about Lauren, the eleven-or-so year old main protagonist. I’ve read quite a few books this year featuring young adult characters, but Lauren is in a league of her own. Rarely has a young girl touched my heart this way, and I felt that Toon managed to capture the very essence of this child who is still grieving for a mother she has never known, a mother who has disappeared but is still very much part of her life, in a way no mother ever should. Lauren’s story unfolded almost dream-like, wandering through a landscape where nothing is quite as it seems, and nothing can be taken for granted. Is it in her mind, or is it real? That shadow place between childhood innocence and adulthood is so well captured here, as Lauren’s magical childhood mind collides with her developing adult logic. Some scenes were simply so unsettling (this word again) that I caught myself holding my breath. One particular scene in an abandoned house in the forest had me slam the book shut in shock and fear and make a hot cup of tea to get my courage back before I could continue reading. It was definitely a “keep all the lights on” type of read! This book haunted me from page 1, and I think it won’t leave my mind easily now even after I have finished reading.
So let’s just cut to the chase: if you are looking for a haunting, Gothic novel with an eerie, claustrophobic setting and characters that worm their way into your mind (and dreams), then this book should definitely be on your radar. Prepare to be emotionally wrung out. Caution when reading it at night, because it brought up some pretty strange dreams for this particular reader! It’s one of the best spooky mysteries I have ever read, and thankfully lacks all the things I normally dread finding in this particular tricky genre. Francine Toon has gifted us with a stunning debut novel that deserves to take the world by storm. I loved everything about it!
Thank you to Netgalley and Random House UK for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.