The Boys in the Trees: A Novel

Paperback | January 22, 2008

byMary Swan

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“This is a mesmerizing novel, that can truly claim to be filled with a ‘terrible beauty.’”—Alice Munro

Newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who has cared for one daughter, encouraging her trust, examines the finer details of his brief interactions with William, searching for clues that might penetrate the mystery of his motivation. Meanwhile the other daughter’s teacher grapples with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams.

In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the volatile collisions between our best intentions—how a passing stranger can leave an indelible mark on our lives even as the people we know most intimately become alienated by tides of self-preservation and regret. In her nuanced, evocative descriptions a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel barrel of a revolver. A supreme literary achievement, The Boys in the Trees offers a chilling story that swells with acutely observed emotion and humanity.

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From the Publisher

“This is a mesmerizing novel, that can truly claim to be filled with a ‘terrible beauty.’”—Alice MunroNewly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionat...

Mary Swan is the winner of the 2001 O. Henry Award for short fiction and is the author of the collection The Deep and Other Stories (Random House). Her work has appeared in several Canadian literary magazines, including The Malahat Review, the Ontario Review, and Best Canadian Stories, as well as American publications such as Harper's...

other books by Mary Swan

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My Ghosts

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The Boys In The Trees
The Boys In The Trees

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The Deep
The Deep

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 8.02 × 5.23 × 0.66 inPublished:January 22, 2008Publisher:Henry Holt and Co.Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0805086706

ISBN - 13:9780805086706

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Read from the Book

ExcerptAnd then he was running through the long grass, wiping at the blood that made it hard to see but not slowing, still running. The roaring fell away behind and he knew that meant his father would turn on one of the others, that his mother would step into the worst of it, but he didn’t care; at that moment he didn’t even care. Still running when he reached the edge of the wood, dodging the whips from the spindly first trees, leaping and tripping over fallen, rotting trunks, running and running toward the dark heart of it. Not even slowing, not thinking when he saw the low, curved branch, jumped and pulled with his thin arms, climbed like an animal, bare toes gripping, until he was up where everything swayed and whispered, green leaves all around.He wiped at his face again and felt the way his eye was swelling shut, tried to quiet his gasping breath. He didn’t know what had brought the sudden kick, the fist to the head, but it wasn’t worth wondering about; there was rarely a reason that anyone would recognize. He would have to go back, he knew that, but knew too that if he waited long enough his father would have worn himself out with the thick leather strap, the leg of the broken chair. Would have collapsed onto the bed like one of those mossy, fallen trees, battered knuckles trailing over the side.His shirt was so thin it was like nothing at all and the rough bark scratched at his back where he leaned. He was well below the top of the tree but he could still see the whole world, see the long waving grass that had closed behind his escape, the green furred higher fields, the tilting cottage with a needle-thin spire of smoke rising. He could see the rutted track, curving away to the village, another clump of trees and the slate roof and highest windows of Bray Manor. When he turned his head a little there was a smudge of dark blue that he thought might be the sea, days away, and beyond that he didn’t know, only that it would have to be someplace better.Somehow after that first time he could easily find his way to the same tree, as if it was drawing him in, pulling him toward it and up and into the center of the green world. He knew there were creatures, spirits in the trees, but he wasn’t afraid. Knew that if they had marked him out there was nothing he could do but believe it was not to do harm. He stole away when he could, often leaving things undone, and the way he climbed became like a well-worn path, one foot here, both there, the gouges where his toes fit, the bole under his clenched fingers. Once, from his perch, he saw his mother stepping out of the dark cottage doorway; that’s who it had to be, although he was too far away to make out more than the faded shape of her. A few chickens came skittering, as they did when they heard the swish of her black skirts, but maybe he imagined that; from where he was the chickens would have been no more than shivers in the air. There or not there, his mother’s hands must have been empty and she raised them and clasped them behind her head, tilted it back, and wedged in the vee of branches he did the same. There was a rare ray of sunlight that he supposed was warming her face and he tried to imagine how that felt, but the sun didn’t reach him in the green heart of the wood, no way he could put himself in her place.After a moment, no more, his mother turned back inside, and he picked up the knife from the spot where he’d balanced it, went back to his work. The idea to carve his name had come from somewhere, maybe the look of certain gouges in the bark, and he had slipped his father’s knife from the jacket pocket, holding his breath. The babies watched him with their old eyes, but even if they could speak, he didn’t think they would. There should have been time; he knew the sun would be high before his father snorted himself awake. But the tree was ancient, the wood like rock, like iron, and the tip of the knife snapped off, fell sparkling down through the leaves. He knew that the beating for a broken knife would be worse than for one that was missing, so he hid it in a hole he scooped out at the base of the tree, climbed like a pirate sometimes, the worn handle clenched between his teeth. He soon gave up the idea of his whole name, and worked instead at the straight lines of his initials. The wood was like iron and it was taking so long, but that was all right. He was still just a slip of a boy, a clout on the ear could send him flying, and he knew that he would have to be bigger, stronger, before he could leave. Thought maybe the time it would take to scrape out the letters would be a good measure. In fact, he was sure of it; it was one of the things he knew, in the same way he knew that he was just waiting here, that it was never meant to be his life.Sometimes he sang while he worked, his voice twig-thin like his mother’s at night, when she whispered about the trees that leaned over the green river. His own tree was so old, the branch so thick, that no sap welled in the wounds he made, but he knew it was there, deep inside. Knew that as surely as he knew that one day he would have money and a steep-roofed house with high windows, a family of his own that he would cherish. He knew that he would find the life he was meant to have, somewhere far from this terrible place, that all would be well, that one day people would know his name. Copyright © 2008 by Mary Swan. All rights reserved.

Editorial Reviews

“This is a mesmerizing novel, that can truly claim to be filled with a ‘terrible beauty.’”—Alice Munro“Intricate, haunting, entrancing, its mystery woven in the texture of the tiny details.”—Tessa Hadley, author of The Master Bedroom“A lovely poignant novel, the movement of the narrative in time and space as natural and intricate as the movement of waves. The stories seem to be telling themselves, yet they are the product of tender and attentive craftsmanship.  . . . After finishing it, I feel as if I am still listening for it. It has the compelling logic of a lingering, powerful dream.”—Hilary Mantel, author of Beyond Black “Beautifully written, the novel transpires in close-up, conveying a sense of intimacy and moving us right into the realm of the sometimes glorious, sometimes ghastly details.  There are scenes you will not soon forget.”—Ann Beattie“[T]he novel is wonderful. The Boys in the Trees reads like a palimpsest, layering significance on significance . . .This is a book that will grow on rereading, and an author who may prove to be a master of the genre.”—The San Francisco Chronicle (2/23/08)“Swan’s prose is tense, rhythmic and emotionally evocative . . . with its forceful observations and willed ambiguities, this challenging and often beautiful book can be as unsettling—and sometimes maddening—as a long look in the mirror.”—The New York Times Book Review