Review: The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

I've been a follower of Caitlin R. Kiernan's blog for a year or so now, but The Red Tree is the first of her books that I've read. I follow her blog for the same reason I follow other authors - to get a glimpse inside what the process is for them, how they write, create, and manage to move in and out of the world of their art. I think I like her blog best, however, and I find myself looking for her posts every morning, mainly because she doesn't gloss over the life she leads, and the difficulties she has as an artist. It's all out there for the world to see - the bad days, the periods of writer's block, the fears she still has about whether or not she's good enough. She lets her readers into her life in ways I'm still not brave enough or comfortable enough to do yet in my own writing, or even here.

Yeah, I know, I know, this is a book review. I'm getting to that.

My point is, over the course of reading her blog I've come to know a few things about her, and when I read somewhere that The Red Tree was autobiographical to some extent, it interested me. It's a tricky thing, injecting some of what you are into a story - it sort of sets up a "is it real, or is it memorex" kind of situation for readers and fans. I started reading the book with that mindset, and the feeling stayed with me throughout the experience. The reality of it, however, turned out to be much more layered and complex than that.

Let me say first of all that I loved the book. Not in the way one loves Shakespeare, or Hemmingway, but in the way one loves Poe, or Lovecraft, or Swinburne. The Red Tree left a mark on me, a feeling that I know I'll get every time I see it sitting there on the shelf. Even as I type this, and look down at it here beside me, I'm drawn into it, into the atmosphere the author created, and I feel myself slipping into a memory of that world - the world of Alice - through the looking glass, as it were. A world where "everything we see is but a dream within a dream."

And that's the point of The Red Tree, I think. Throughout the novel, I went round and round with the story, in and out of reality, in and out of what might be true, what might be dream. I thought about how many things the protagonist had in common with the author, and I wondered - what is real here?- with every chapter I read. What is real for Sarah, the protagonist? What is real for Caitl in? What is real for any of us?

Throughout Sarah's journal entries and dreams, her research and her memories, I was kept slipping, looking for a foothold into reality. As it turns out, this is both the draw and the magic of The Red Tree. It's a book about finding oneself lost, even though the path may appear straight; about the confusion and pain of losing our way, and how anger and pride cloud things even further. It's all of those things wrapped in an atmosphere of dark fantasy and gothic sensibility, and it was a great read. Five Stars.

18 August 2009


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