I just finished reading Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan. The novel takes place in the late nineteenth century in Emden, a small Ontario country town. The story is about a man who murders his entire family and the effect this has on the townspeople. Most of the chapters are told from a different person’s point of view so you get a sense of the far reaching effects a horrific incident like this has on an entire community.
The premise of the story has, no doubt, been told many times before but there is something compelling and almost voyeuristic about the topic of familial murder. When William Heath, his wife and two daughters arrive in Emden they appear to be like any other normal, quiet family. He is an openly loving and attentive father but rumours of embezzlement and ultimately the murder of his wife and two daughters force the community to reconcile perception with action. Who really was William Heath?
The novel is compelling almost for the same reasons that make it somewhat annoying and disjointed. Early in the book you get a sense of who William Heath is and where he comes from. He is a young English boy who early on escapes the brutality of his father. The book then shifts to his meeting his wife and the subsequent birth of their first three children all of whom die of diptheria. Just as you begin to get a sense of who these children are the story shifts to the family’s move from England to Canada. It is here that you get a sense that all is not quite right with the Heath family. William wants more than he has for his family and eventually rumours of wrong doing drive him from town to town until ultimately they settle in Emden.
In Emden you get a sense of who the family is through the eyes of others. First the town’s doctor, who has developed a relationship with William’s sickly daughter and then through the town’s teacher who knows the other daughter Rachel….and then through various other characters who all amble in and out of the story, including the doctor’s son.
What the reader wants is to get inside the head of William Heath. Why did such a seemingly loving, doting father take his family’s life. Ultimately, this is what we can never truly know either in this story or in real life and you’re left with a feeling of being short of the story and the character. You’re driven to read more because we want to know who this person is.
The book is frustrating because it comes so close to being a great book. It’s prose is suffused with poetic melancholy that sticks to you like a hot summer day of your youth…something you remember but can’t quite put your finger on.
Where the book falls apart is through the introduction of too many characters you don’t care about and not enough of the one’s you do. Still this is a good start for a first novel.