Cold winter nights seem to practically call out for a decent Gothic thriller, and Francine Toon's debut novel Pine certainly aims to please. Part Wiccan-influenced ghost story, part murder mystery, it's a book that weaves together a few different elements to varying degrees of success. At its core, though, Pine's story is about a young girl and her father navigating their way through a world that has cast them out.
10-year-old Lauren's mother, Christine, disappeared some years ago amidst circumstances that are still not entirely clear. Beyond some tarot cards, a strange book of spells and some playground rumours, Lauren has little to remember her by.
Her father and sole guardian Niall isn't exactly much help in this regard. He seems well-meaning enough but has become dependent on alcohol and is emotionally shut off. The appearance of a strange woman whom only Lauren seems to remember seeing, sets off a chain of events that may lead to the truth behind Christine's disappearance coming to light.
She doesn’t smell unpleasant, but familiar, of how she imagines the moon might smell, or a flower that only bloomed in winter. The woman shows her a silver ring on her finger, two hands holding a crowned heart, and then holds it out in her palm. They hear distant explosions.
— Francine Toon, "Pine"
A Perfect Winter's Tale?
Lauren and Niall are very much the heart and soul of this novel. Their characters are expertly written, with the exploration of their hardships and their relationship often feeling poignant but rarely too melodramatic. Niall's struggles with depression and alcohol in particular manage to elicit equal measures of sympathy and suspicion in the reader (much as they do for Niall's neighbours).
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The premise itself is captivating enough, although the pace will likely be a little too slow for many. The mystery element of the story comes in at about the halfway point of the novel and adds some much-needed drama. Unfortunately, though, it proves to be the book's weakest aspect, with its conclusion ultimately falling flat.
The writing is decent throughout. It is often all too easy for gothic-influenced writers to get lost in overly rich, melodramatic and fantastical prose. Toon goes for a more clean and barebones approach here and keeps things rooted in realism. Horror fans yearning for familiarity will still find plenty of the usual spooky tropes to sink into, not least the dark forest and a ghostly woman in white.
In the Author's Own Words
Pine presents an interesting mix of the modern and the gothic. It's a lot of the things we've seen a thousand times before but with a 21st-century makeover. The result is something that will appeal to horror fanatics and a casual audience alike. Blow doors down it does not, but it might well bring a little of that winter chill into your home.
What Others Have Said
- "There are plenty of readers who love the grand old archetypes of spookiness, and there’s certainly room on the bookshelves for well-written tales like this one. But I hope that Toon, in her next novel, lets her intriguing characters stride out into less familiar territory." —Carrie O’Grady of The Guardian
- "There is so much about these mysterious goings-on that is left unexplained that you can’t help wondering if the novel might have functioned perfectly well without them." —Roger Cox
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.