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A Crooked Tree


A Crooked Tree

From debut novelist Una Mannion comes A CROOKED TREE, a spellbinding and suspenseful coming-of-age story set in the early 1980s in suburban Pennsylvania.

The Gallagher family has seen their fair share of trauma. Their mother divorced their Irish immigrant father years ago, casting him out to a life of contract work and half-apartments. Soon after he left, she began seeing a new man known only to her children as Bill, and added a fourth child to the family. Though their father pretended not to know the difference and always treated the kid as his own, the family fractured even further, until one week when he died of sepsis from a botched wound stitching, all alone in his half-apartment. Since then, the children --- Marie, Thomas, Libby, Ellen and Beatrice --- have walked on eggshells around their mother’s grief and new romance, often fending for themselves when it comes to mealtimes or homework help.

"Perfect for readers of Jean Kwok, Bonnie Kistler and Christopher Scotton, A CROOKED TREE announces the arrival of a brilliant new talent, an author as adept at creating compelling characters as she is at putting them through the wringer."

On the night we meet the Gallagher family, the middle daughter, Ellen, is fighting with her mother about attending an art summer camp. Frustrated by the constant bickering and dreading the long summer ahead, their mother pulls over and orders Ellen to walk the last five miles home. The Gallaghers live on a winding, forest-filled hill, and though Libby, our main character, is perfectly comfortable, even happier, among the trees, even she knows this is a rash punishment. When Ellen has not made it home hours later, the Gallaghers call upon friends to search for her --- but no one is prepared when she shows up at Libby's babysitting gig bruised and bloodied, explaining that she attempted to hitchhike but met with a bad man. She jumped out of the car and ran for her life, but her fight with the long-haired creep, who the children nickname the Barbie Man, is far from over.

As Libby works on cleaning up and calming down her sister, punk rocker Marie, the eldest child, takes over, calling upon local badboy Wilson McVay to help. Wilson has a rap sheet a mile long --- full of crimes both real and imagined by local gossips --- and he vows to make sure that the Barbie Man never hurts another little girl again. Desperate to keep the event from their mother and, in fact, all grownups in the area, Libby focuses on getting back to normal. But rumors fly quickly in their small mountain town, and Wilson is not known for doing anything quietly. Though his search for vengeance is honorable, his actions set forth an unstoppable chain of events that will push the Gallagher children to their limits.

What follows is a summer of a fractured suburbia. The children have become disillusioned by their mother; unmoored and unguided, they begin to fill in the blanks they have about the world by themselves, often with painful side effects. For Libby, 15 and at a crossroads in her life, this means filling her mother’s shoes in the house, navigating difficult friendships, taking an interest in boys and having it returned --- all with the knowledge that the Barbie Man and men like him are still out there. For her siblings, it means leaving home, learning that bad men exist and coming to terms with their flawed parents.

In a gorgeous bit of writing, Libby takes great solace in the “Kingdom,” a clearing created by a circle of giant oaks and thick laurel, where she shares rock albums, stale cigarettes and warm beers with her best friend, Sage. In a novel written about the many ways adults fail children, it is this clearing, this nearly religious relationship with nature, that adds some much-needed hope and levity to the story. Mannion writes these scenes with such pathos and mysticism that the forest --- and Libby’s love of it --- leaps off the page, making this an incredibly immersive novel.

A CROOKED TREE is suspenseful but is propelled much more by emotion than murder or sabotage, with Libby’s coming-of-age driving the bulk of the novel’s plot. With Libby and her siblings learning about the grittiness of the world and still fighting for their place within it, helping one another through and over and under, the book takes on a propulsive pace, even when the action is all emotional and internal. Mannion is a fantastic writer and infuses every scene with wisdom and tenderness, all while fleshing out the tremendous atmosphere of the children’s mountain home and Libby’s Kingdom. This gripping study of anger, resentment and dysfunction is both tightly plotted and full of possibility.

Perfect for readers of Jean Kwok, Bonnie Kistler and Christopher Scotton, A CROOKED TREE announces the arrival of a brilliant new talent, an author as adept at creating compelling characters as she is at putting them through the wringer. This poignant, entrancing novel will stay with you for a very long time.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 15, 2021

A Crooked Tree
by Una Mannion

  • Publication Date: January 4, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 006304983X
  • ISBN-13: 9780063049833