Fantasy Reads – The Silver Bough

Last week the Scotts voted to stay in the United Kingdom (I’m a quarter Scottish but I didn’t get a quarter of a vote). To honour their decision I’m recommending a Fantasy novel set in Scotland, or at least in a place that is usually part of Scotland. `The Silver Bough’ by American writer Lisa Tuttle was first published in 2006. It is currently available in paperback or as an ebook. Tuttle draws on the rich folklore of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland and on the Arthurian legend of Avalon – the mystical `Island of Apples’. Apples feature prominently in this book, so you might want to stock up with a few to munch while you’re reading.

This is a novel in which the place is as important as the people. Appleton is a small town situated on an apple-shaped peninsular on the western coast of Scotland. It was once a popular seaside resort and a great fruit-growing area, famous for an incomparably sweet apple known as `Appleton’s Fairest’, but the town’s fortunes have been in decline since the 1950s. The local factory has closed down, the apple orchards have been grubbed up and few tourists visit any  more. The town’s only asset is a grandiose library and museum built by the wealthy and eccentric Wall family. Into this failing community come four lonely strangers…

Divorced Kathleen has made a new start by taking the post of Librarian in Appleton. The library is said to be haunted by the ghost of Emmeline Wall and the attached museum has some very odd things in its collection (such as `fairy eggs’ and a unicorn horn) yet Kathleen loves the place. Mario is a teenager who because of an affair with a married woman has been sent away from his home in Sicily to work in his surly uncle’s fish and chip shop. Texan Ashley has dropped out of college after the sudden death of her best friend and doesn’t know what to do with herself.  Her late grandmother, Phemie, ran away from Appleton to America, even though she was engaged to the richest man in town. Now Ashley has come to stay with the Scottish relatives she’s never met before. Nell is a reclusive young widow who has restored derelict Orchard House and planted apple-trees in its walled garden. She has even found a seedling that might be the long lost `Appleton’s Fairest’. After a landslide cuts off the town from the outside world, this seedling produces a bough with silvery blossom and one perfect golden apple.

Trapped in a town with few young people, Ashley has little to do but make drawings and listen to local legends. She’s told that King Arthur sleeps in a nearby cave, that the area is inhabited by a fairy race who shrink as they age but never die, and that every 50 years a golden apple appears which can grant anyone who eats it their heart’s desire. She also hears about the strange and tragic history of the Wall family and learns that her grandmother Phemie was once chosen as the Apple Queen, who was supposed to preserve the luck of the town by sharing an Appleton’s Fairest with a handsome stranger during the annual Apple Fair. That never happened, but Ashley meets a handsome stranger of her own, the mysterious Ronan, who claims to have returned to Appleton after a long time away. Ashley, Kathleen, Mario and Nell all begin to have strange experiences as Appleton slips out of the ordinary world and into the realms of Celtic myth. The dead are seen walking and ancient dangers awaken. Can a pair of true lovers save the people of Appleton by sharing a magical apple, or will a sacrifice be needed?

Publishers tend to believe that book-buyers only want to read stories about characters who are very similar to themselves – same age, same gender, same race etc. Normally I find this depressing and contrary to the spirit of Fantasy fiction, which is all about exploring the different and the extraordinary. However, I must confess that the strength of my identification with Kathleen did help me to enjoy `The Silver Bough’. This character shares my temperament (`she `felt both stimulated and at peace in the company of all the silent books’), my taste in literature, and my own childhood dream of living in a library. Living in a Glasgow School Art Nouveau library packed with magical books and objects is my idea of heaven. You may prefer to identify with one of the other three viewpoint characters – artistic Ashley, romantic Mario, or secret gardener, Nell. `The Silver Bough’ isn’t a flawless book. For a novel set in Scotland, it has remarkably few Scottish characters. There seems no reason why Ashley, Kathleen and Nell should all be Americans (did Tuttle’s publishers insist on this?) when they only need to come from a few miles away to count as outsiders in Appleton. The male characters are less convincing and interesting than the female ones. Mario isn’t given enough to do and Dave, the famous singer-songwriter who provides the love-interest for Kathleen, seems a little too good to be true even in a Fantasy novel. Though, like Kathleen, I wouldn’t be able to resist a man who has actually read my favourite folklore collection – Campbell’s `Popular Tales of the West Highlands’.

Some people find Tuttle’s style too flat and her pace too slow but I think these are aspects of her chosen story-telling technique. She describes extraordinary things in an everyday manner in order to make them more credible. Tuttle also takes her time building up a detailed picture of Appleton, using pastiche newspaper cuttings and visitor guides and quotes from invented journals and books. By mid-way through this novel, I knew my way around this sad seaside town, with its derelict grand hotel and empty shops, and I had begun to care about its fate. Failing towns and cities are a topical subject but not one you often encounter in Fantasy fiction. Small oddities are gradually introduced – phone-calls that go unanswered, revellers glimpsed in the distance, a light shining through a window that shouldn’t be there. It seems to Kathleen that `the whole town was waiting for something wonderful that was about to happen’. When the wonders do start to happen, Appleton becomes a disturbing, even dangerous, place for ordinary humans to be. Kathleen’s view of the world is turned upside down during what starts off as a routine visit to an elderly librarian. Supernatural creatures manifest in a smell of burning, a woman beckoning from the sea, or a white horse beside a loch. The horror lies in what might have happened rather than what does.

Tuttle doesn’t stint on plot elements in `The Silver Bough’. There are plenty of past and present mysteries to be solved – Why did Emmeline Wall throw herself into the sea and who was the father of her illegitimate son? Is there a secret chamber in the Library and what does it contain? What made Phemie run away from Appleton and which new couple will share the golden apple 50 years later? The story contains quite a number of possible couples to keep readers uncertain about the answer to that last question. `The Silver Bough’ could be categorized  as Fantasy Romance. Widower Dave and widow Nell are set up to contrast with each other; the former ready to move on while the latter is trapped in a destructive spiral of grief. There is also a standard figure from Scottish folklore, the fairy suitor whose magical `glamour’ makes him attractive to every woman he meets. Yet on second reading, Tuttle’s novel is more subtle and less romantic than it appears to be. In `The Silver Bough’ the fairy suitor can attract lust but not love and the story asks what might happen if the fairy himself does not want to play his traditional romantic role. With the resonance of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the apple in the background, it is never entirely clear whether eating the golden apple is the right thing to do. Was it selfish of Phemie and her fiancé to refuse to follow tradition and share the apple, or did they have a right to try to make their dreams come true without any supernatural help? Will Appleton be saved by a time-shattering act of magic, or by ordinary people with the courage to commit themselves to each other and to their community? If you find these interesting questions, `The Silver Bough’ may be the book for you. Fantasy Reads will be back in two weeks time on the new regular day of Thursday.


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Geraldine Pinch