Book Review – A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

When 12-year-old Ellen Gallagher and her mother get into a heated argument on the drive home one night, along a dark and desolate road, a snap decision made by the mother is to have consequences that will reverberate, through their own family and their little community, for the rest of that summer. A Crooked Tree is, in part, a coming-of-age novel, replete with the anxieties of adolescence and complex family dynamics, elevated to something else due to the skill with which author Una Mannion conjures her struggling characters, the atmospheric Pennsylvanian mountainside setting in which most of the story takes place, and the looming threat of the sinister ‘Barbie Man’ figure who enters the Gallagher’s lives on that fateful night.

The early chapters and pivotal event introduce two key elements of this novel. Firstly, the night-drive sequence, resulting in Ellen being left at the side of the road, immediately illuminates the complex family dynamic and history at the heart of this story; it reveals the anger, sadness, tension, trauma and allegiance to a code of silence simmering within this family, and permeating their household. After several brief attempts to make the mother turn back, Ellen’s siblings sit back quietly; this silence within their family, not wanting to speak out despite knowing something is wrong, is a theme which recurs. Later in the novel, our 15-year-old narrator Libby recalls a time she spoke out and reflects, ‘I had broken a code of silence we all kept about everything, and now here was another example of how, if I told our secrets to outsiders, bad things would happen to all of us’. We learn that their father, separated from their mother, had died not too long before our story begins and, as the story progresses, all the hurt, grief, resentment and trauma inflicted in different ways on each child becomes evident. Ellen’s artistic ambitions are the cause of the argument that night but, recalling her drawings, Libby reflects, ‘they weren’t childish drawings, they were stark, detached and sad.’

The second key element introduced in the opening chapters is the importance of place and the surrounding landscape to the overall mood of this novel; Mannion has a beautiful way of bringing the dark and wild mountainside setting to life, providing historical context for the area and also imbuing each page with evocative and immersive atmosphere. The trees and forest gain such significance as the novel progresses; what could seem a desolate and frightening landscape to many is familiar and often comforting to the children; to Libby in particular. The titular crooked tree is a landmark in the dense forest beside her house that points off-track to a secret ‘fort’, created with her best friend Sage. Not only do the trees provide an anchor and refuge in the emotional turbulence that surrounds Libby, but they also represent a link to her father, who inspired her connection with the natural world.

As the summer progresses, the children dealing with the fallout from that night provides the perfect playing ground for Mannion to explore an array of themes; from families falling apart, young love, friendships and loyalty, to emigration and subsequent nostalgic longing for home, rural and small-town community dynamics, infidelity and its consequences, the darker sides of society, and the secrets lurking behind so many doors of this remote community. Set back in the 1980s, Mannion skilfully recreates a sense of time and place, both in the evocative and intricate descriptions of the surrounding landscape, and in the references to events taking place in the country and wider world around the time. The age-of-innocence about much of the story – children walking alone along dark roads and through forests at night to meet friends or go babysitting for neighbours is fairly unthinkable these days  – stands in sharp contrast to the darker and more threatening sides of society illuminated, both within Libby’s own community and in the country at large. 

Mannion vividly conjures her key characters in the Gallagher siblings, each with their own distinctive traits, in a way that makes us feel invested in them and their fate. The eldest Marie is beginning to forge her own path away from the family but is naturally drawn back into a motherly role where their real mother is largely absent; the only boy Thomas, seems to have thrown himself into his studies as a means of coping; Libby is the self-proclaimed worrier and over-thinker who often views herself through a comparative lens in relation to her brilliant best friend Sage, and her seemingly perfect family; Ellen, the arty one, seems to have the most difficult relationship with the mother; and the youngest Beatrice, most likely only a half sister to them, becomes an emblem of innocence, always over eager to please, around who they all rally. The mother, a detached and aloof character, is mostly away at work or up in her room with the door closed; we feel angry and frustrated at her for her treatment of her children but, while we get very little insight into what drives her behaviour and she remains a slightly enigmatic, peripheral figure, we could also assume that she is suffering in her own way from a marriage breakdown and being left to raise five children on her own. Several references are made through the novel to how the father was not perhaps always the shining light his children remember; which touches on the theme of the difficulty for children of understanding and navigating marriage breakdowns. We get the sense that the children were close to their father and now that he is gone the family is somewhat falling apart; Marie is leaving for the city, the rest of the children bar Beatrice are shutting in on themselves or being self-destructive; even the house is falling into some disrepair. Libby and Thomas used to cut local lawns with their father and the cutting of lawns becomes laden with meaning throughout the novel: just as the immaculately cut lawn is the quintessential suburban American symbol of community spirit and household order, the long grass and weeds now growing out their front becomes a reflection of how things are within their four walls. The lawn cutting is also a link to their father, and a means of keeping some control over his legacy; offers from neighbours to cut the family lawn are met with defensive reproach rather than gratitude. 

Libby is a compelling, fully fleshed-out and vibrant character to be living this story through. She is at times anxious, vulnerable and rocked with self-doubt; at other times fiery, witty and surprisingly self-assured. Mannion’s contemplative, probing and self-reflective prose style perfectly mirrors our narrator’s mind as we come to know her. We see her experience first love, and falling out with her best friend, as well as reflecting on her deep tie to the trees and landscape around her, and the deep tie that her father had to his homeland of Ireland. The wealth and depth of her reflection, and self-knowledge, occasionally comes across as more mature than her fifteen years; perhaps due to the need for her to grow up quickly in a world where the adults around her seem to consistently neglect their role as trustworthy caregivers and role models. Mannion’s fluid and lyrical prose, weaving Libby’s memories and reflections with vivid storytelling of that summer’s events, make this a compulsive, engrossing, heartbreaking and poignant read. Ultimately, this is very much a novel about the young people being their own, and each other’s, saviours.

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A Crooked Tree was published in 2021 by Faber in the UK and Ireland, and Harper Collins in the US.

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Una Mannion was born in Philadelphia and lives in Co. Sligo. She has won numerous prizes for her work including the Hennessy Emerging Poetry Award and the Doolin., Cuirt, Allingham and Ambit short story prizes. Her work has been published in The Irish Times, The Lonely Crowd, Crannog and Bare Fiction. She edits The Cormorant, a broadsheet of prose and poetry. A Crooked Tree is her debut novel.

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