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“The Red Tree” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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I’ve been a fan of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s short fiction for a long time, so I was excited to dive into one of their novels. The Red Tree is the story of Sarah Crowe, a novelist who flees to Rhode Island after a romantic relationship goes disastrously wrong. There’s an ancient oak tree on the grounds of the isolated cottage she rents, and over the course of the summer, she becomes more and more aware that the tree is not entirely what it seems.

The literary technique of false forms—writing a story as if it were some other type of document—is one I’ve always appreciated. Kiernan makes good use of the technique to place us even more firmly within Crowe’s POV than would be possible with standard first-person narration. Sometimes there are multiple journal entries for a single day, with the later ones reinterpreting or adding to incidents described earlier. In one case, a string of increasingly egregious spelling and grammar errors indicates that Crowe is experiencing the prodrome of an epileptic seizure. Kiernan also incorporates a short story Crowe wrote, and while it has metaphorical significance for the larger narrative, it’s also a polished piece that could stand on its own. (Interestingly, Crowe mentions another story she’s written, “The Ammonite Violin,” which is the title of a story by Kiernan.)

As usual, Kiernan’s command of language is superb. One of my favorite lines in the book—from a poem written by one of the characters—is “I know the ugly faces the moon makes when it thinks no one is watching.” This sense of the eerie permeates the novel, and Kiernan doesn’t give the reader easy answers. It’s hard to describe these aspects without giving things away, but I can say that by the end of the novel, even basic elements of the situation are called into question. Kiernan also isn’t afraid to draw on multiple influences: there are definite Lovecraftian elements to the story, but some of it is also reminiscent of the Celtic legends of the Tuatha De Danann. This gives the titular red tree a sense of being something that transcends any individual myth or story, perhaps being at the root (pun intended) of multiple such tales. But we’re never told exactly what’s going on. While some readers might find that frustrating, I’ve always loved stories that fall under the “weird fiction” umbrella, where we often don’t get everything tied up in a neat bow. I loved this, and it makes me eager to check out more of Kiernan’s long-form fiction.

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