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A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Literary Fiction

By Jo Nestor

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Una Mannion was born in Philadelphia and comes from a large family with strong Irish American roots. She has lived for many years, however, in County Sligo, Ireland where, among many other things, she lectures in Writing and Literature at Sligo IT, and edits the Cormorant, which is a broadsheet of prose and poetry.

A Crooked Tree is Una’s first published novel. The title has symbolic meaning which is revealed early on. My paperback copy was gifted to me by a friend, and having heard so much about it already, I couldn’t wait to start reading. The first sentence alone packs a punch:

‘The night we left Ellen on the road we were driving north up 252 near where it meets 202 and then crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike.’

Right from the start, then, it’s safe to say I was hooked. I loved every crafted sentence, every page and chapter.

Two words spring to mind with regard to this story overall: ‘richness’ and ‘authenticity’.

The sheer richness of words chosen, with obvious care and deliberation; of characters depicted; and of the actual story itself. In fact, the richness of the entire book was like a metaphor for loam on the woodland floor of the mountain that fourteen-year-old Libby frequents.

And authenticity, which shines with vibrancy throughout the story, as told by Libby herself. In my opinion, A Crooked Tree reads almost as a profound study of teenage hood. For instance, Libby’s observations of nature are hyper-focused, detailed, maybe even borderline obsessive. Again and again, as in ‘real life’, teenage Libby displays over-concern with events and situations happening in her life, all of which are beyond her control. Her character is so full of frailty, yet courage; adult responsibility, yet childishness. She makes mistakes, experiences triumphs, knows redemption, happiness and grief. And adults appear on the periphery, as they should in a story told from a fourteen-year-old’s perspective.

Themes of social and natural history, as well as immigration and global events, are deftly interwoven throughout the book, with due consideration and just enough balance. These sprinkles all serve to anchor, as well as enhance, the world that Libby inhabits. Without them, her story would be timeless.

It’s in her ‘alone time’ that the reader gains clear insight to Libby’s thoughts, and that’s also where we learn some of her backstory. Some, but not all. This is most important to me as a reader. Why? Because I dislike being spoon-fed.

Dialogue is often sparse, sometimes harsh. This is both necessary and effective, because it zings off the page. When Libby has to think on her feet in immediate, stressful moments, it’s clear to the reader that she doesn’t possess either the emotional or experiential skills to cope. And why would she? She’s fourteen years old.

The build-up of tension in the last quarter is masterful and, like so much of the story, full of vivid imagery. Even twenty-four hours later after I’d finished reading the book, in my mind I was still seeing dust motes, vast landscapes and huge clouds; smelling tree bark and moss, melting tarmac on summer roads, and freshly cut grass. I enjoyed the afterglow so much that I was reluctant to pick up the next book on my ‘To Be Read’ pile.

What a triumph of a debut novel. I do hope A Crooked Tree is nominated for every award in its category.

FUN FACT: I’ve known about Una for a many years, but we’ve only ever met once. It was at an event held at The Dock in Carrick on Shannon, County Leitrim. We both shared a stage with four other women, each reading commissioned writings of our own at the inaugural ‘Miscellany of Women’s Voices’ in celebration of International Women’s Day, 2020. And with the world being a veritable ‘global village’, it was through a short chat in the Green Room beforehand that we established we have several mutual friends.

(c) Jo Nestor

Jo Nestor (pen-name), retired Adult Educator, now writes full-time. She won the Leitrim Guardian Literary Award 2020, read a commissioned piece at an International Women’s Day event in March 2020, and was long-listed in June 2020 for the FISH memoir competition. She chooses to live in hope.

Order your copy online here.

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