Pine by Francine Toon
I am sat here writing this on a very atmospheric day. Honestly it could not be more perfect. Over the weekend, people across the UK were celebrating Bonfire Night; Bonfires were lit, toffee apples consumed and it seemed as if about a million fireworks were let off. Of course all this is being done under lockdown rules, but by standing at our door we were treated to a firework display that felt like it was just for us. Naturally the next day we awoke to a foggy day, a real pea-souper reminiscent of a Dickens Christmas which made the reading (and reviewing) of this book even more satisfying.
Set in the Highlands of Scotland, Lauren and her father Niall live in a small village and are still coming to terms with the disappearance of Lauren's free-spirited mother 10 years earlier. On Halloween night Lauren and her Dad come across a woman by the side of the road, dressed only in a dressing gown. Niall drives her back to their home, but by morning she has gone and Niall has no memory of this woman. Later another woman disappears. Why can Niall have no memory of the woman by the road? Has something happened to her? What is behind the locked door in Niall's house and what exactly happened to Lauren's mother?
Well this turned out to be quite an unusual gem of a book. It has been shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year (this is the actual award title, I haven't anything against Scotland here!) and was Waterstones Crime Book of the Month. But I received a top tip from a reader on Instagram which I'm going to pass to you; Don't think of it as a crime novel, it isn't. Just go with it and you will enjoy the reading so much more than waiting around for an investigation to occur. The actual crime part is incidental to the story and the investigation itself is almost an afterthought taking place towards the end of the book.
Instead, as you start to read, just sit quietly and admire the language, the atmosphere, smell the pine and try not to be affected by the oppressive loneliness of Lauren's life, because as a literary gothic novel, it's a good one!
Francine Toon really captures the beauty and magnificence of the Highlands and life there. The writing is understated and almost humble. But it is the addition of the lady in the robe that seeks to terrify. She made me have genuine goosebumps. I wished I had read this at Halloween because it scares and it seeks to chill and make you want to switch another light on in the room where you are reading. The characters are, if I'm honest, not that likeable. Niall is a mess, Lauren is sensitive and meek and the bullies at her school are the worst. Even the older teenagers, who help take care of Lauren are flawed with drink issues.
As I say the crime is almost an afterthought to the novel, but is pleasing in that it ties up all the loose ends and answers the questions posed.
I would happily read this author again and look forward to her next publication. This novel was marvellous and atmospheric. A novel that truly goes BOO!