Friday, 20 July 2012

Book Review | The Silver Bough by Lisa Tuttle

Appleton is a small town nestled on the coast of Scotland. Though it was once famous for the apples it produced, these days it's a shadow of its former self. But in a hidden orchard a golden apple dangles from a silver bough, an apple believed lost for ever.

The apple is part of a legend, promising either eternal happiness to the young couple who eat from it secure in their love — or a curse, for those who take its gift for granted.

Now, as the town teeters on the edge of decline, the old rituals have been forgotten and the mists are rolling in. And in the mist, something is stirring...


It's been a long while since we last heard from Lisa Tuttle. After a prolific period in the nineties and early noughties, the award-winning author appears to have gone to ground, and though The Silver Bough has only recently been released here in the UK, it was made available in the United States six years ago. So it's not a new novel... nor does it feel especially fresh.

What The Silver Bough is, on the other hand, is beautiful — particularly this edition of it, with its gorgeous adornment. More notably, I suppose, The Silver Bough's setting is obscenely appealing. Meanwhile its premise is all poise; its characters are undeniably attractive; and Tuttle's prose is almost criminally pretty.

But beauty, as they say, is only skin deep, and beneath the surface, The Silver Bough is a disappointingly noncommittal novel: a modern-day fable about a magical apple that doesn't go far enough, or fast enough. It's perfectly pleasant - easy reading for a few evenings - but a touch overblown, and problematically paced, I'm afraid.

As to that last, the lion's share of the blame can be shared between the three main narrators, all of whom, oddly enough, are Americans living in - or in one case visiting - a remote village in the north of Scotland.

There's the librarian, Kathleen, whose interest in Appleton's history leads to some strange revelations. Then there's the granddaughter of the last Apple Queen: Ashley has come to the country to fill out her family tree, though she secretly hopes to meet a hunkish Highlander while she's here. Last but not least we have Nell, a lonely soul whose only goal is to turn her back garden into an orchard. Little does she know that the key to the village's uncertain future is growing on one of her trees.

Once upon a time - for so this story goes - Appleton was a place famous for the fruit from which it takes its name, but now "the old orchards are gone; the Apple Fair hasn't been held in decades, and everyone has forgotten the real reason behind it. But the magic is still here, deep in the land — and the land knows. Every so often, it offers up a magical gift. The last time, that gift was rejected, and things began to go wrong." (p.254-5) Unless events develop differently on this occasion, Appleton is apt to fall to ruin forever.

The Silver Bough's fantastic last act may be too little, too late for some readers, but for what it's worth, the tale itself resolves relatively well.

My problems, in any event, were with the telling. Kathleen, Ashley and Nell are all outsiders, to a greater or lesser extent, thus the angle they offer on Appleton and its interesting inhabitants is curiously askew. Never mind that their perspectives aren't remotely representative: oftentimes, they're too busy remarking on how wonderfully quaint rural living is to focus on more meaningful matters... for instance the narrative.

Entire chapters pass without incident. Then, when something of note does go down, it's almost always glossed over, the better to get back to what Tuttle is interested in above all else: idling. Which is to say calmly taking in the sights and sounds of what is, admittedly, a pleasant, picturesque place.

The Silver Bough is not a bad novel at all — only disappointing. Some memorable moments - foremost amongst them a creepy encounter with several generations of ancients - are sure to stay with you long after the last chapter. In the interim, the prose is powerful, and the setting is simply tremendous; if this beguiling book doesn't sell you on Scotland, I don't know what will. What frustrates, finally, is that The Silver Bough is only a good book, when it could have been - or should have been, given Tuttle's talents - a truly great text.


The Silver Bough
by Lisa Tuttle

UK Publication: July 2012, Jo Fletcher Books
US Publication: December 2006, Spectra

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