Frontlist | A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion reviewFrontlist | A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion review
on Feb 02, 2021
On the last day of the school year, widowed single mum Faye Gallagher is driving her five bickering kids home when she snaps. Swerving on to the hard shoulder, she forces 12-year-old Ellen to get out of the car and walk the last five miles. Hours later, darkness has fallen and still Ellen hasn’t made it back.
Don’t be misled. While Una Mannion’s debut ably fulfils the promise of its suspenseful start, providing carefully orchestrated lawlessness, bare-fisted violence and a long-haired predator sinisterly named “Barbie Man”, this is no crime novel. As the story unfurls, its deeper menace and mystery will derive not from child abduction but from secretive family dysfunction and the ever-confounding travails of adolescence.
The setting is Valley Forge Mountain, a tight-knit rural community outside Philadelphia. We’re back in the early 1980s and our narrator, Ellen’s 15-year-old sister Libby, is struggling to find her place. She’s drawn to skinny dipping and keg parties while pining for the woodland forts of younger summers. She loves the orderliness of her best friend’s affluent upbringing even as it makes her ashamed of her own shambolic home; above all, she’s caught between knowing she should be more sympathetic to her mother and mourning her feckless but idolised Irish father.
With the humid summer drifting by, the repercussions of that fateful car journey keep the plot ticking along ominously, challenging Libby’s sense of herself and straining familial ties to breaking point. Some of her epiphanies give off a distinctly YA vibe and nods to forces shaping the wider world – strip mining, hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, America’s blinkered exceptionalism – can feel like an overreaching distraction. Where Mannion excels is in evoking a time and a place that’s slipping away even as she pins it to the page with such perceptive, lyrical economy. The Gallaghers will soon be scattered, but just for a moment, they’re held together by their collective longing for the family they once were.
Yoking a classic coming-of-age narrative to the pacier engine of a thriller takes skill and A Crooked Tree is more than persuasive, emanating nostalgia, foreboding and clear-eyed empathy. Source: The Guardian