Apr 30 2010 3:54pm

Queering SFF: Review of The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan

The unreliable narrator is a pretty common concept, one that lends itself to telling scary stories, but rarely do I see it employed as wonderfully as Caitlin Kiernan does in The Red Tree. The way the book is set up treats it like a “true story”—it opens with an “editor’s note” about Sarah Crowe’s final manuscript, the journal that is the text of The Red Tree. From the start, the reader is aware of the fact that these are the writings of a woman who has killed herself and who was haunted by increasing delusions and hallucinations (or so the editor tells us, so we must suspect). However, when you’re reading the book, you believe. You believe until the last moment when you realize that all has not been as Sarah told you, and then it’s fabulous to go back and re-read that “editor’s note” at the beginning. There is no way to know for certain what really happened to Sarah or around her, and what was in her head. Not only is her mind unreliable, but the text is organized as a journal she herself kept and edited. A dual-layer of unreliability and shadow lurks in those words—what lies was she telling herself, or what polite fictions to hide her own agony?

Underlying the potentially supernatural horror story is the “real” horror story of a woman whose lover has committed suicide and who cannot form another meaningful connection with someone. Sarah’s sexuality is a major point in the book, but not solely because she’s a lesbian. It’s important because of how much love has damaged her by the point in which she’s writing the journal at the farm. The way Kiernan balances the supernatural ghost stories of the red tree and its grisly supposed past against the reality of a woman with slipping sanity is masterful. The question of which story is “true” might be irrelevant, here, though—both were true to Sarah, despite the moments in the text she seems aware that she might be imagining things or losing her grip.

Really, a large part of me just wants to hit the caps-lock button and write “buy this buy this buy this,” but I have more to say than that. However, keeping back the flood of glee over how much I enjoyed this book, from the narrative construction to the story itself, is difficult. Kiernan’s skill is impossible to deny after reading The Red Tree. As a reader and a writer I felt like I had read a masterpiece when I finished and re-read the first chapter (of sorts). The way Kiernan uses words to make Sarah real is something that requires a deft and delicate hand. The journal has intentional “errors” in it, repetitions of words or the regular digressions Sarah herself acknowledges, that make the experience even more real. When absorbed into this narrative, you feel that you might actually be reading the last manuscript of Sarah Crowe. That’s something many people who write “journals” miss—when someone, even a professional writer, is keeping a journal, it is going to have rough edges. Nobody spends time polishing the prose in their journals, really. Yet, even those rough edges manage never to be bad writing because they’re done with so much care. (I could go on about how pretty the words are in this book, but I’ll try to refrain.)

Sarah Crowe is one of those narrators who is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, willfully hiding things from herself and the reader but never for a petty reason and never in a way that will frustrate you. It’s interesting to consider how much her sexuality might have informed her personality and her writing as we see it in The Red Tree. She has a deep-seated insecurity that eats away at her, a self-hatred that eventually leads in some part to her death, and the feeling that she cannot be worthwhile for another person. She grew up in a small town, a fact that she circles and circles in the text—which seems to indicate that she can’t get her past there out of her head. The fact that they removed her books from the library there is another indicator. She didn’t belong, and really, I feel like she never thought she did, no matter where she went. That could be because of other social anxiety issues or her sexuality or both; I appreciate that Kiernan doesn’t use her sexual identity as a cheap drama-chip. It’s handled with class, realism and style.

As for her relationships, the cloud over the whole book is her problematic one with her dead lover, Amanda. Amanda cheating on her was enough of a betrayal, but then she commits suicide, something Sarah seems unable to move past. She can hardly talk about it, even in her journal. I did relish the way their relationship and sex in general was treated in this text. Sarah uses sharp language and has frank sexual desires that she isn’t afraid to talk about. Too often in fiction, it seems like lesbians are handled as ultra-feminine people who think about sex in terms of snuggles. I love it when an author frames desire for a woman in a way that rings true for me: it isn’t always soft and sweet. It’s sex, it’s physical, and it’s often raunchy/filthy/rough. It’s not all about snuggles and cuddles, especially not a one-night stand. Some readers might not get the same mileage out of Sarah’s descriptions of sex, because she can be rather caustic and demeaning when thinking about other women. However, I’d argue that’s because of her position at the time she’s writing the journal—she’s been dreadfully hurt by someone she loved with too much passion, someone who she can never even say goodbye to, and love to her is an ugly, raw topic. All of that self-hatred doesn’t circle around sex or sexuality, but I’d say at least some of it does, and that comes through in her language. Her relationship with Constance is one of the debatable portions of the book: we know from the editor’s note that Constance really was there for some time, but not when she actually left and not if they really did have sex. Sarah believes they did and is bitter about Constance’s cavalier attitude about their encounter, but it’s interesting to consider the fact that it may not have actually happened. If not, is the imagined encounter an extension of Sarah’s confusion of Amanda with Constance? So much of the novel is completely unreliable, it’s hard to say. The way trauma can manifest itself in dreams and desires is something Kiernan uses to full effect in this story.

I like Sarah. I love how Kiernan writes her, and has her write. The closeness of mental illness and writing in this text are uncomfortable but in a good way. Sarah is a woman carrying around open wounds that she’s not very good at hiding, from her perceived failure as a writer to the loss of her lover. Her voice is full of that pain but so engaging, up ‘til the last page. The tangled threads of reality and mythology, life and dream, death and love—they all weave together in The Red Tree. It’s not just a book of queer SFF. It’s an absolutely excellent book of queer SFF that I would recommend to any reader, even one who isn’t directly interested in issues of gender and sexuality. The story manages to be so many things at once, from personal narrative to ghost story to nearly Lovecraftian horror to historical record of the red tree itself. It’s gorgeous, it’s certainly scary, and it’s worth laying hands on if you have the chance.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

Alex Brown
1. AlexBrown
Man, I love these reviews :) Another one to add to my ever-growing list of books to read...
David Bilek
2. dtbilek
Great review, great book. No spoilers for the first two paragraphs below; potential spoilers after.

I couldn't get TRT out of my head for a few days after I finished it. I feel like there are enough clues in the book to allow a careful reader to piece together at least some if not most of what "really" happened. Er, I mean I know that Sarah's inner life is real and much of the point but y'all know what I mean. But I couldn't quite do it. I have some theories and possibilities but that's it.

Secondly, the book for me illustrates one potential pitfall of narrators this unreliable; the reader must trust that the writer has absolute control of the narrative and that any mistakes and inconsistencies in the narrative are deliberate. I trust Gene Wolfe to have that absolute control; if Severian or the narrator of PEACE contradict themselves, I know damn well that they're really contradicting themselves and Wolfe didn't simply make an unintentional error. But I'm not sure whether I can assume the same of Kiernan which makes piecing things together more difficult. Is this error intentional? Is it a clue? Did Kiernan just screw up? I'm not as sure as with Wolfe.

Spoilers follow.

I wish I still had the notes I jotted down when I was jotting down some thoughts after I finished but I don't, and I read the book long enough ago that some details are a bit fuzzy. I am at least somewhat confident that the entire manuscript-within-a-manuscript that, with Sarah's discussion of same, comprises a sizable chunk of the novel didn't actually exist. Or rather it existed but it was written entirely by Sarah not the guy who killed himself at the tree prior to Sarah. (I can't remember if the professor's suicide was confirmed in what we must assume are "true" editor's notes to Sarah's journal but at least we have to assume that the editor would have pointed out that the previous tenant didn't kill himself if he had not).

But Sarah reported finding a story that showed all evidence of having been written by herself despite having no memory of writing it. Her style, her byline, clear references to things only she (of alive folks) should know. And Sarah reports "finding" the supposed manuscript immediately after a very sizable (in terms of time) gap in her journal. I recall other hints as well, but taken together it seems likely that Sarah wrote the thing during the big gap in her journal and either didn't remember writing it or lied about who wrote it.

Must re-read because I can't remember where that conclusion led me. With regard to not knowing how much to trust Kiernan's control of her narrative, I do remember one significant example in broad strokes. At one point in the book Sarah describes a women having died in a certain way (not Amanda or one of the present-day characters.... I want to say it was someone from the past... in San Francisco or something?) and then later in the book Sarah is supposedly transcribing an article which reports the women having died in a completely different fashion. And I have no idea if that's a deliberate "error" Kiernan introduced or if she just slipped up and the inconsistency wasn't intended. You get the idea.

Oh, on a minor note I couldn't for the life of me figure out the significance of the little figurines the editor reports having found scattered at the base of the Red Tree. Such things were mentioned once or twice in the narrative but I don't remember them having any special significance in those mentions. Minor, sure, but it seemed like it should have been obvious to me what the significance was while the bigger stuff I didn't feel too badly about finding murky.

Lastly, I am not sure how much weight we are to give the fact that Sarah's supernatural jaunt in the basement is so reminiscent in tone and some detail of the kind of supernatural occurrences in many of her other books. Are we to lend more credence to Sarah's reports because we have out-of-narrative knowledge that exactly such events are "real" in Kiernan's other books? I'd like to take this book entirely on its own but some of the synergies with THRESHOLD and the like were so direct as to make that difficult.

Holy Textwall Batman. Yeah, I haven't had the chance to discuss this book with anyone. Yeah, I should re-read it.
Matthew Brown
3. morven
This sounds wonderful, and I should read it. I read a few of her earlier works and actually had her as a guest on our radio show back in the late '90s.

Very good point about the all-too-frequent characterization of lesbian sex as pillows-and-cuddles. In works by both men and women. Unsurprising, I guess; men are likely to see women as 'other' and the sex they desire as fundamentally 'nicer' than that desired by men; while bisexual women are likely to have looked to women for the aspects of sexuality they haven't found in relationships with men, and thus be feeding the same stereotypes.

I've avoided this, I think, in my work-in-progress, which has lesbian and bisexual female characters. This reminds me, though, that I really should find some lesbian second opinions on that topic, to make sure it rings true.
Hannah X
4. h4nn4h
I only read the first paragraph of this and headed straight to my wishlist...I'll read the rest once I've read the book!
Brit Mandelo
5. BritMandelo
@Milo1313 & h4nn4h

Awesome! I promise you'll like it.


I did have those suspicions about the "text" she found, because of that gap, and the later confusion with the short story she didn't remember writing. Though, at the same time, we can't know for sure--because that professor did, so far as we know from the editor etc., actually kill himself there. It's just uncertain why or if he really wrote the book; both seem possible.

I find that I did trust Kiernan to manage the unreliability, possibly because even if she were to make a mistake, it would really just add to Sarah's unreliability as a whole.

I totally do not mind textwall. I encourage textwall, actually. Please do. *g* These are all really interesting points.
6. Lsana
My review of this book is pretty simple. I stayed up until 11 to finish it. Then I stayed up until midnight listening to cheerful music and reading Dave Barry columns, because there was no way I was going to sleep with the image of that basement still in my head. There were a number of elements in the book that annoyed me (most notably the fact that I don't like books about writers), but its flaws matter a lot less than the fact that I was hooked from about Chapter 2.

@2 dtbilek,

I wondered the same thing about the manuscript, but I eventually decided against it. "Pony" reflects what we know of Sarah's mental state at that point. The manuscript really doesn't; Sarah showed exactly zero interest in the tree before she found it and not all that much right afterwards. I'm inclined to believe that it was mostly the Professor's, though she may have added to it. There were a few entries that didn't seem to me that they quite fit with the others.

On Constance:

Do we know that she was ever there? We know from the Editor's Note that she was a real person, but I don't know that we know she ever rented the attic and moved in with Sarah. I remember that the Editor's Note mentioned that she visited the attic "where Sarah said Constance had set up a studio" or something like that, something that left a lot of ambiguity about whether Constance had actually been at the house. There's also the fact that the librarian seemed to think that Sarah was alone there, as well as what Sarah saw in the attic at the end.
Brit Mandelo
7. BritMandelo


From what I remember the editor's note said that she did use the attic to paint some canvases which she later showed at an exhibit, but it implies that she left quickly and didn't stick around afterwards. Potentially she never even lived in the attic but only used it as space to paint and/or wasn't there during the time frame that Sarah was there. I'd guess that most to all of the parts of Sarah's narrative with Constance in them aren't "real."
David Bilek
8. dtbilek
From what I remember the editor's note said that she did use the attic to paint some canvases which she later showed at an exhibit

This matched my recollection as well but I just pulled out my copy to make sure. Here is what it says:

"The only published work concerning Hopkins, aside from what follows and her website, was a brief profile and review in Culver City Artscape (September 2009) following her installation at a gallery on La Cienega Boulevard last summer, a show which apparently included several of the canvases mentioned herein."

I find this a lot more ambiguous than I remembered. It doesn't seem to me to provide any evidence that Constance actually painted the canvases in the attic; it only claims that some of the canvases Sarah mentions were at the installation in Culver City. I'm really going to have to re-read because now I want to look for evidence that Sarah could have learned of the paintings some other way (i.e. via website).

In fact now I think this note might suggest that Constance wasn't there. "Last summer" would place the art exhibit in the same summer as the events of THE RED TREE. Sarah reports seeing these canvases in, what, June and July? And seeing Constance until early August. Is there any way at all to reconcile Constance Hopkins having a show with these canvases in Culver City (2500 miles away... CC is Los Angeles) in summer of 2008 with painting them in Rhode Island in summer of 2008? I suppose it's vaguely possibly if the show was in August but would a gallery really drop everything to set up an exhibit for an unknown artist on a moment's notice like that? I have no idea.

It does seem like Kiernan may be palming her cards a little here. Having CH refuse to comment in any way on what did or did not happen is cheating a bit. Refusing all comment would, to me, imply she was there and some freaky stuff really did happen. I cannot come up with a convincing rationale for not making any kind of statement if CH wasn't present at all or if she was present and everything seemed relatively normal. Maybe you refuse interviews and such but not even a simple "I wasn't there" if you weren't?

It would kind of ruin the story if Constance blabbed about what happened, of course, but that doesn't mean it isn't contrived to have her refuse to say anything. Particularly since her refusal can only be read as either an indication she was present and freaky stuff did happen (which conflicts with other evidence as to Constance's lack of involvement), or as cheating on the part of the author to preserve ambiguity.

(edited: fixed a typo which changed the meaning of the last sentence)
Brit Mandelo
9. BritMandelo

Oh, yeah, that is definitely more ambiguous than I remembered. It does seem to imply that she was never actually there--Sarah does tend to "take" inspiration and stories from the people around her, the way a lot of writers do.

The fact that the attic was empty and unkempt, etc, at the end seems to lend itself to the argument that she really wasn't ever there. But you're very right that her "no comment" statement makes it more suspicious than it otherwise would have been. It may just be what you suggest, preserving the ambiguity, because if at the beginning chapter we had known that Constance was never there it would have made the whole slippery slope into madness a little less convincing. Hmmmm. Very good points you raise.
David Bilek
10. dtbilek
Brit: Exactly, the best explanation I can come up with for Constance's lack of comment as related by the editor is to preserve the ambiguity of the story. Which, as I said, strikes me as a little bit shaky in terms of narrative integrity. But we can't actually be sure that Constance wasn't there, and her avoidance of the issue is also consistent with not wanting to deal with something very scary and very unnatural. It's just that neither of these options are completely satisfactory for; option 1 seems more consistent with the events inside Sarah's manuscript but means the framing editorial bits are cheating a bit in terms of narrative integrity while option 2 doesn't have that problem but then leads to inconsistencies as to the evidence of whether Constance was present or not.

Perhaps we're over-thinking it. But it's a testament to Kiernan's writing that it's worth the trouble of thinking about it in this way. I enjoyed what I read of her other work (Threshold, Daughter of Hounds, Alabaster but while good I don't think they were as complex or rewarding as TRT on this level.
11. Lsana
My interpretation of Constance's "no comment" was that it could be translated in at least two ways:

1. Some really freaky stuff did happen, and I really don't want to talk about it, thank you.

2. Nothing happened but the implication that something did might be good publicity . I don't want to lie, but I don't want to deny the story.

I interpreted Constance's show as having taken place in the summer of '09, so I don't think that's any contradiction between her being in RI when Sarah said she was and having her show in LA in '09. Don't think that proves it either way.

As to how Sarah might have learned of Constance in another way, Sarah mentions learning a bit about all the artists that Amanda loved. It's possible Constance was one of those.

On the Editor's Note:

I re-read the note after letting the story settle for a couple of days, and I found it...odd. The Editor's Note is full of details that don't matter (what kind of car she drove, the exact history of the little toys she found under the tree) and very coy on the details that do: the name of the previous tenant and how he/she died, whether Constance had ever leased the space, or whether or not the attic looked like it had been used as a painting studio. I haven't read any of Kiernan's other books, so I can't say if this is just her style or an indication that the Editor isn't a totally reliable source either.

Though speaking of Kiernan's other books: how do they compare to this one? If I liked this one, where should I go next?
David Bilek
12. dtbilek
Lsana: Going back over it you're probably right about the show occuring in summer of '09 not '08. That timeline is rather convenient (show in summer '09, article on Hopkins in "Culver City Artscape" published in September of '09, editor's note written October of '09) but it does make more sense in terms of the timing of the article. I'm not sure how I became so convinced the show was in summer of '08...

You'd probably want to read either Silk or Threshold next, or pick up a collection of Kiernan's short stories to get an idea of her range. I'd probably suggest the latter if you enjoy shorter fiction.

Kiernan's writing has matured a great deal since her earliest novels; I thought TRT was the work of an author fully in control of her talent while in the fist couple she was still flexing her writing muscles to find her voice. That doesn't mean they aren't good; I liked the sequence of novels starting with Threshold quite a bit. But there are rougher edges and stylistic quirks that she gets rid of in later books; she even pokes a bit of fun at herself for one of those stylistic quirks in... uh... shoot... I don't remember which book.

Have you read Guy Kay? It's sort of like how Kay was still working his talent out in the Fionavar tapestry. Some very powerful scenes. A lot of good stuff. But he obviously didn't have the same control as he does in his later books. He hadn't yet learned not to use an emotional cleaver when a scalpel would work better. It's kind of like that.

So you may or you may not like her earlier works as much as TRT depending on what you look for in novels. I still enjoy early Kay even if I know it's not quite as good as The Lions of al-Rassan or, particularly, The Sarantine Mosaic.
Brit Mandelo
13. BritMandelo

Yes, this.

I love books that I don't just toss back on the shelf when I'm finished. I want them to linger.

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