The reveal is the scene where all the intimations, allusions and possibilities that have rippled through what has gone before move from potentialities to certainties and the reader knows beyond doubt that we are in the presence of the fantastic.
In Lisa Tuttle's new novel the reveal comes two-thirds of the way through, when the librarian of a small Scottish coastal town that's a little bit like Campbeltown (but in this novel is called Appleton) goes to visit one of her predecessors, a long-retired woman called Ina, to talk about the town's past over tea and biscuits. The scene starts with a gossip and then takes a turn for the eerie when Ina offers to introduce her visitor to her mother. After that, the scene gets progressively weirder, as things rather creepier than skeletons come out of the cupboard (and we're talking literally here). It's a moment of toppling vertigo that clues the reader into the fact that we're not in Campbeltown any more, in toto.
Tuttle is an American writer who now lives in Scotland, and from reading The Silver Bough it's clear she is intrigued by what the music writer Rob Young once called "old, weird Britain"; the Britain of The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, of Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale and Alan Garner's The Owl Service. Like the films and books that preceded it, her novel taps into that sense that we are literally haunted by the past, that our history and – more importantly – our myth in all its antick strangeness is still with us, a presence in the landscape and a force shaping it.
Drawing on F Marion McNeil's book on Scottish folklore (and borrowing its title while she's at it), Tuttle has written a novel that takes in the world of faerie, the symbolism of the apple and the importance of ritual. In doing so she has written a romance. In both senses of the word.
For the first half of the book it's the chick-lit definition that applies. Tuttle's set-up is leisurely and plainly drawn. We're eased into the story and eased into this town on the edge of Scotland, one that feels cut off from the modern world. Eventually it will be, when an earthquake blocks the only road to the place.
We are also introduced to not one, not two, but three American women now living in Appleton: the librarian Kathleen, a widowed novelist called Nell and a teenager named Ashley whose grandmother left the town to move to the States back in the 1950s, around about the same time as Appleton started to go into decline. All three are as much emotionally dislocated as geographically, and all three seem drawn to a stranger who has turned up in the town and seems to have some link to its heyday.
Actually, the spelling out of that attraction is the (small) worm in the apple here. It's the one time Tuttle's writing feels forced and really rather soapy. Lust is discombobulating, but it's usually the characters and not the writer who succumbs.
She is much better at the fantastic than the romantic fantasy. By the time the landslide is in place, things are beginning to feel a little strange in Appleton. People begin to appear who by all rights shouldn't be in the town, either because we're not certain they're human or because we've been told they're already dead.
Meanwhile, a strange enveloping fog creeps closer and closer to the town, there appears to be a mermaid in the sea, and is that a kelpie in the lochan? The world of faerie is stirring from beneath the earth and it turns out none of them is much like Tinkerbell. By this point in the book – who am I kidding? By this point in this review – you're either in it for the long haul or you've retreated to read James Kelman's new novel.
In some ways it's the bit after the reveal that is the hardest to sustain in fantasy novels, because the writer has to amp up the strangeness to the point where it becomes the norm. But Tuttle handles the task with a winning lightness and wraps the story up in a satisfying manner (albeit with a touch of romantic wish-fulfilment).
There is, of course, another romantic impulse going on in The Silver Bough. And that's the romance of reading. While it might be very good on the day-to-day reality of the modern-day library service (no budgets, fewer books), Tuttle's novel is also brimful with a love of books. At one point, Kathleen the librarian recalls her childhood dream of living in a library. It's a dream, you suspect, that was nurtured in Tuttle's own Texan childhood.
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