YA author Sarah Rees Brennan once wrote, “Gothic novels are often referred to as the ‘girl meets house’ genre. This is pretty accurate: usually the girl meets a tall dark dangerous man and a tall dark dangerous manor at about the same time.”
Dawn Kurtagich’s And the Trees Crept In is no exception to the Gothic genre. Here, Silla Daniels escapes a rough home life with her little sister, Nori, to their ancestral, pastoral home. The mansion is surrounded by trees and owned by a kindly aunt. Both the house and said aunt begin to fall apart after Silla’s arrival.
Some time later, a boy, Gowan, shows up. He’s a nice stranger who claims he’s an orphan that Silla’s aunt raised for a short time and wants to help with the dilapidated garden.
But Silla doesn’t want him there. He can’t be there. In that classic love triangle Brennan described between Silla, Gowan, and the house, Silla made her choice a while back, and that choice is her crumbling home.
The mansion, described in patches, represents protection for herself and her sister, even if that protection means mold on her dresses, layers of dust on the furniture, and a beloved aunt who has confined herself to the attic.
Or a very tall, very strange man whom Nori has befriended and whom Silla can’t see.
I first learned about And the Trees Crept In from a Young Adult panel about creepy horror fiction at this year’s Boston Book Festival. I listened to the author speak about the forces that pushed her to write this strange book: fears of mortality and a relative who became ill.
The book was an impulse buy for me. Maybe it had to do with Halloween coming up, but once in my grasp, I felt compelled to read it until I was done.
Trees is written in a kinetic, involved style. We are most often in Silla’s head, first at age 14 and then 17. As the house succumbs to peeling paint and runs out of food, Silla’s hair and teeth begin to fall out. It could be poor medical care, or it could be something much worse.
The book tapped right into my own fears of rot and desiccation. Silla’s horror at the choice she has so stubbornly made—she won’t leave the house, it’s best for eight-year-old Nori, it must be, what other choice does she have, why does her memory feel so unreliable—is dreadful and fascinating. It’s wonderfully effective. So effective, in fact, I found myself forgiving many of the book’s conceits where I would have otherwise been hesitant to continue reading.
I’m not sure I understand why Nori is unable to talk. Her teeth are rotten due to poor dental care, yes, but how does this affect her vocal chords? I am also less interested in the creative typography of various diary entries and sections of the novel where Silla sees time “s l l l l o o o w” down. I like the hidden messages when they’re included; it gives the sense that the novel is a treasure hunt to uncover what Silla doesn’t know she knows, but your mileage may vary.
There is mention, too, of an oncoming war sweeping the planet, even though it’s set in the contemporary world. Is it possible that this election cycle has concealed said international war from me?
But this book doesn’t really take place in our universe. It takes place in Gothic Land, where ancient architecture crumbles, patriarchal figures are most often tyrants, and Heathcliff and Cathy need to be together but also work to drive each other apart. Silla is more or less the panicked governess from Henry James’ Turn of the Screw trying to figure out if the children in her care are under the influence of ghosts or if she’s been driven insane by the history of the house. She’s the self-possessed Kami Glass in Sarah Rees Brennan’s own The Lynburn Legacy books, trying to figure out if that no-good rebel Jared is trustworthy despite the reputation of the Lynburns and their terrifying manor.
And the Trees Crept In belongs on the shelf between paperback covers of Gothic heroines in nightgowns walking down darkened corridors with candlesticks. It’s a little gaudy and always creepily gorgeous.
Exploring the house, the narrative tells us, is Silla’s own way of exploring her soul. The revelations belong to her and her state of mind.
Along with Brennan’s quote above, the final pages of the novel remind me of a paper read by Jess Nevins at Readercon in 2014. The paper discusses the difference between “female” Gothic and “male” Gothic:
[I]t is the male Gothic, with its triumphant supernaturalism, which asserts the irrational over the rational. The female Gothic resolutely reveals its purportedly supernatural events as having a logical, materialist origin. […] [T]he female Gothic is usually a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, about a female protagonist, and her individualism is tested but ultimately proved sound by the events of the story, which usually ends with a happily-ever-after.
Trees tends toward the female Gothic, with Silla unraveling the mystery of the house, her life, and the nature of her loved ones, but the supernatural elements that show up soon after Gowan strolls into her life show this book may have a bit of male Gothic about it, too. He’s a disrupting presence to Silla’s life, the “tall, dark” stranger who offers her an alternative to wandering the emaciated hallways of the house. He’s gentle in contrast to her harsh solitude, friendly to Nori in comparison to her harsh discipline of her sister. He offers her another life, a warm alternative. Though his looking to help her find a more logical way to live is in line with the female Gothic, he assures her that all of her difficulties are absolutely grounded in something terrifying and inhuman and that she has been right to be afraid all along.
I can’t stop thinking about the ending. I would call it predictable, but I did not predict it. It only feels inevitable and true.
And the Trees Crept In accomplishes a pitch perfect thriller about a teenage girl’s psychology. Whether or not Silla triumphs in her individualism, she absolutely triumphs as a memorable character in her specific, Gothic, boy-house-girl love triangle. Regardless of my qualms about its House of Leaves–tribute typography, as a short read for Halloween, it is nearly perfect.
Image via Flickr.