A tragedy-scarred woman dedicates her life to guarding trees.
Brunette’s novel opens with an emblematically vivid and horrifying image. The book’s main character, Lata Marie, recalls the day before her eighth birthday, when Aunt Charlotte set fire to her house—“a rambling Victorian with a turret and a wrap-around porch”—and was consumed in the flames. “The last time I saw her,” Lata reflects, “she stood in the attic window waving at me, a solid wall of fire behind her like a stage curtain.” From that stark initial image, the narrative flows backward to flesh out the oddly controlling nature of Lata’s Uncle Jesse and its effect on the unconventional Charlotte, who “had a translucent quality—an ability to walk through a room full of people as though she were the only one there.” It was the extensive amount of time she spent with Charlotte as a child that gave Lata her own sympathy for nature and “taste for wildness.” The story expands to include Charlotte’s own background; the tale of her introduction to the neighborhood woods, protected by the Convent of the Sisters of St. Francis; and the semimystical lessons she absorbed from nature. “The woods taught me things you can’t learn from people,” Charlotte muses, “like how to make friends with trees and the little plants that grow beneath them.” Looming in the background of all these deep stories are the fate of the woods and the fiery culmination awaiting Charlotte.
Brunette handles the many strands of her novel with considerable, delicate skill. The decision to shuttle the plots between chapters focusing on Lata and those concentrating on Charlotte could easily have backfired since it necessarily stands in the way of a central momentum forming. But the author makes this split narrative work, increasing the undercurrents of tension between the two stories across diverse time periods and personalities. Somewhat unexpectedly, the character of Jesse, with his odd obsessions—reflected in a different way from these two narrative perspectives—often takes primacy. The book unifies the various threads through a sense of connection to the natural world and a feeling of resentment at its destruction. “Did anyone make their prayers to the forest, make their case for the good this city would do by rising up in its place?” asks a character looking at the rapid urban expansion. “Did anyone talk to the people who had lived there first, convince them of the pressing need for the giant dry cleaner and the drug store and the factory that made foam rubber?” Brunette gracefully and subtly moves her parallel stories forward, and although Charlotte’s tale is noticeably more intriguing than Lata’s, both are adroitly shaped in order to evoke and echo each other. And the suggestion running through both accounts—the unambiguous sanctity of the natural world—lends the two storylines an urgent kind of real-world spirituality.
An intricate and captivating dual narrative that keeps returning to the magic of trees.