Amidst the winding Highland B-roads and the long, creeping dark of a northern winter, Lauren and her father Niall try to come to terms with the disappearance of Christine, Lauren’s mother. One cold October evening when out guising, they find a gaunt, barefoot, woman lying in the road. Lauren and her father give the woman shelter, but when morning comes she has disappeared. Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards and in the sideways glances of friends and neighbours. In a close-knit and claustrophobic village, someone knows the secret linking the two disappearances. Although Francine Toon’s poetry has appeared in the Sunday Times, Best British Poetry, and Poetry London, ‘Pine’ is her first foray into novel writing. It was shortlisted for and won a slew of literary prizes and in my opinion is well worth the praise.
With too little police procedure to be traditional Nordic noir and not quite enough of the supernatural to be low fantasy, there is nevertheless a sense of the brooding occult about the narrative, of forces seen and unseen at work. The mise-en-scène lends itself to this sense of shadow and mystery, with shivering treetops, pine needles thick on forest floors, and the ‘crackle of lichened wood in the stove’ providing an unnerving and fairy tale-like setting for the story. Toon’s ear for poetry is evident, with some of the language staggeringly beautiful and evocative.
Ten-year-old Lauren is at once a straightforward and complex lens through which the narrative flows. Toon captures the voice of the child well, particularly when Lauren deals with her loss and her father’s alcoholism. Lauren is not mawkish, however, but rather cynical, intense, questioning, and an excellent vehicle through which we explore each character. These qualities are projected back onto the reader so brilliantly that no-one – not her father, not her neighbours, not the old man propping up the bar at the inn – are immune from suspicion. What results is a thrilling, suffocating intrigue. Toon hails from Sutherland in the Highlands. Her capturing of the community, insularity, and isolation of such an upbringing chimed with my own experiences of growing up in the rural Scottish Borders. The ceilidhs in some far-flung village hall, the common ridings, and the rugby sevens tournaments were offset by those dark spaces in between – the long bus journeys, the canopied trees above a tunnel-like country road, lights from some isolated smallholding twinkling through the night. ‘Pine’ inhabits this rural dark matter, the shadowed laybys and rutted dirt tracks that seem only to exist to bind those few places of light and warmth together. It is in such a place that Lauren’s teenage babysitter disappears after catching a lift home with Niall, setting up a thrilling finale in which Lauren puts herself at once in terrible danger and within touching distance of the truth about her mother’s disappearance. ‘Pine’ is an atmospheric, haunting thriller which will have you huddling closer to the fire as the nights draw in.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, Best MicroFiction 2021, Writer’s Egg, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0