Don’t be misled. While Una Mannion’s debut ably fulfils the promise of its suspenseful start, providing carefully orchestrated lawlessness, bare-fisted violence and a long-haired predator sinisterly named “Barbie Man”, this is no crime novel. As the story unfurls, its deeper menace and mystery will derive not from child abduction but from secretive family dysfunction and the ever-confounding travails of adolescence... Yoking a classic coming-of-age narrative to the pacier engine of a thriller takes skill and A Crooked Tree is more than persuasive, emanating nostalgia, foreboding and clear-eyed empathy.
Una Mannion’s excellently creepy novel begins in classic psychological noir style but soon broadens into a far richer portrait of Reagan-era America and its cultural bogeymen, thanks to the fearful world view of its narrator, 14-year-old Libby, who becomes fixated on keeping her little sister Ellen safe.
If this makes Mannion’s novel sound hackneyed, it is anything but. The classic coming-of-age tale gets new life from the original setting, the nostalgic 1980s atmosphere, and the clash of Irish and American cultures as witnessed and related by the intuitive narrator Libby. In theme and structure there are overtones of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, though this is the world as viewed through the eyes of a sometimes angst-ridden teenager, as opposed to the muddled innocence of children. But there are similar patterns in both books: absentee parents, amateur sleuthing, misconstrued neighbours and the real dangers that lurk in the background.
The menace in this moody, meticulously plotted debut lies not in preposterous plot twists, but within the mysteries of dysfunctional families, close-knit neighborhoods harboring dark secrets and adolescents’ imperfect, and sometimes disastrous, understanding of the world of adults... The plot unfurls slowly. A villain arrives in the form of a mysterious man with long blond hair driving a black Camaro. There’s also the unsettling presence of Wilson McVay, an older boy who listens to punk rock, takes drugs and has a reputation for violence and lawlessness. Before the story is over, everyone will have some growing up to do.
Libby and her siblings are desperately doing what they can to keep their family together. Their mother is finding it hard to cope, and when she leaves one of her daughters, Ellen, by a roadside in a fit of rage, it sets in motion a summer of events. Packed full of small-town America ambiance, this is a tender tale of a young girl tyrnig to do her best, written with such heart.