Sandi Kove left home as a young woman and has all but cut ties with her family of origin. She has a husband, two beautiful adopted teenagers, and a stable job writing marketing reports for a company that seems to appreciate her. When she hears from her sister that their elderly father is all but begging she return for a visit—and that he might not live much longer– she breaks a decades-long father-daughter silence and returns to a peculiar patch of scrub forest, a yellow wood where all of her other siblings have settled down within walking distance of Dad’s cabin.
It is clear that Sandi’s departure, years earlier, was an escape from something. Though she refers to her father as a wizard, it is clear that even she is not certain what she means, or exactly what it was that she was getting away from. Certainly Alexander Kove was a domineering parent, and as the two of them take the first tentative steps into their reunion we see that he is stubborn, racist, emotionally withholding, and afraid to show any of his considerable vulnerabilities.
In Melanie Tem’s The Yellow Wood, Sandi’s plans to make a short visit are complicated by her need to find out exactly what magic—if any—Alexander worked upon his family. There’s considerable evidence of some kind of tampering. Her brothers are, respectively, a career activist, a musician and a gardener. They seem to hate the very thing that occupies most of their waking hours, and they all blame Alexander for somehow forcing them into it. Sandi’s sister, meanwhile, is a career mother: she has had so many babies that Sandi finds her with kids who are younger than her own eldest grandchildren.
In The Yellow Wood, Tem moves between two point of view characters—Sandi and Alexander—often giving us “he said/she said” views of their various clashes and the rare moments when they drop their guard. Even as she reestablishes ties with her trapped, unhappy-seeming siblings, the heart of the book is Sandi’s need to both connect with her father and establish a permanent sense of independence from him. Returning to the fold shows her that she has not resolved as much as she may have initially believed.
Readers may find this book raises more questions than it answers. As the process by which Alexander impressed his will on his children becomes apparent, and explicitly magical, it serves to heighten our awareness that plenty of non-wizard parents try, in various forceful and sometimes abusive ways, to direct their children’s choices well into adulthood. Countless middle-aged grown-ups are estranged from parents who manage to be very problematic even without magic. Whether Alexander can literally force someone to be a gardener or a musician is almost less fascinating than discovering why he would do such a thing.
The Yellow Wood is a terrific book, and I came away from it unsettled, even a bit horrified: the Kove children, having been shaped by their father, show him a compassion I’m not certain he deserves, and though his choices do take an obvious toll on him (and a deeply interesting one) I can’t quite convince myself, as Sandi seems to, that the exchange contains some merit.
This makes the dynamic of the father-daughter relationship in this novel seem one-sided, despite the point of view switches, and I have to say that I found it difficult to muster any sympathy for Alexander. Simply watching Sandi’s brothers miserably forcing themselves to raise vegetables and make music creates an indelible impression of men living cursed and blighted lives. Still, it’s important to note that not all the discoveries Sandi makes in the yellow wood are unwelcome to her.
Even so, this character’s comparative success in life, it seems to me, is entirely due to her having chosen to walk away from her childhood home. Though she comes to appreciate some of Alexander’s gifts, and recognizes the price he paid to bestow them, it is the family Sandi chose for herself that truly nourishes and supports her final decision.
If The Yellow Wood is a tightly-written and morally complex novel, it is also unexpectedly suspenseful. The emotional tension is perfectly balanced; Tem has created a book that’s harder to set down than a thriller. Sandi Kove’s journey through the land of her childhood—her discovery of its secrets and her long-delayed reckoning with the past—makes for a deftly woven and emotionally powerful story.
The Yellow Wood is available February 24th from ChiZine.
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to her 2014 Tor novel, Child of a Hidden Sea.
If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.