Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!
Once upon a time, the Sirens theme was “hauntings.” And there were ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night. We all read The Haunting of Hill House. We all talked for days about how, for more than a century, women disguised women’s issues as phantoms and shadows and slowly creaking doors. We all learned an awful lot about that liminal space where fantasy meets horror.
But that year, the aspect of “hauntings” that spoke to me was never the ghosts or the spirits or the bump-in-the-night things. Like everyone else, I did read The Haunting of Hill House. I did delve into its use of a supernatural manifestation as a proxy for Eleanor’s boundless mommy issues. I did marvel at Shirley Jackson’s cleverness and defiance. But I also failed to, as Edith Wharton might demand, meet Ms. Jackson “halfway among the primeval shadows”—and I couldn’t figure out why the book was supposed to be scary. After all, aren’t we all used to being undermined, shamed, ordered about? Even if by people who are perhaps more tangible? Is this because I read Hill House in a hotel room in Manhattan? Don’t @ me.
Rather, the part of the “hauntings” theme that resonated with me was the idea of being haunted by something somewhat less spectral: A family rift. A mistake made. A memory half-remembered. And then binding that up in a fantasy world, where magic is yet another, perhaps more limitless, opportunity to explore our more human connections. Such as in Redwood and Wildfire, where there are ghosts, yes, but where Redwood’s haunting is far more profoundly about overcoming her family’s history with slavery and lynching. Or in The Monsters of Templeton, which also did include ghosts, just a bit, but was really about trying to go home again and the roiling, barely-hidden monstrousness that you might find there.
Thus, why I chose to read The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace—and why I think it’s one of the best examples of both a non-ghost hauntings book, but also a fantasy book where the magic and the impossible provide another avenue of exploration. Let me tell you about it.
Sorrow Lovegood lives in Miami with her father and her step-family. But Sorrow has lived there only half her life: She spent her first eight years living with her mother in the matriarchal Lovegood family apple orchard in Vermont … until something terrible happened, something that Sorrow can’t remember, and she ended up in Miami. She has not been to Vermont, or seen her mother or maternal grandmother, since.
Sorrow is a fascinatingly unreliable narrator. Her memories of her first eight years are hazy at best, blank spaces or even false at worst, presumably rendered by the terrible event that precipitated Sorrow’s move to Florida. Even better, Sorrow knows she’s an unreliable narrator. (And even better than that, Wallace avoids the trap of having her heroine, in the fog of her memory, focus single-mindedly on her frustration for several hundred pages.) Sorrow’s unreliability allows, neatly, for both a first-person point-of-view and a mystery to be solved.
Sorrow, driven by her muddled memory, suddenly demands to return to Vermont, to the apple orchard, to the mother and grandmother she hasn’t seen in half her lifetime. And thus, the book truly begins.
Wallace quite cleverly sets, and then frequently twists, the tone of Sorrow’s time in Vermont. Sorrow’s hometown is much like many small American towns, and Sorrow’s return in summer plays, deliberately, on readers’ (presumably) nostalgic memories of their own (presumably) happy vacations in similar towns. But, despite the tourists and the ice cream and the annual town play (focused both hilariously and horrifically on the generations-long feud between the Lovegoods and their neighbors), Sorrow’s time in Vermont is most certainly not a vacation. The more time she spends there, the more she remembers: the orchard’s sometimes uncanny intricacies, the often shocking family history, how suffocating a small town can be—especially when your family is just a bit different. Memory, you can almost hear Wallace assert—perhaps smugly as the reader attempts to deconstruct what is on the page from what their own brains have oh-so-unhelpfully supplied—is a powerful tool.
Much like in The Monsters of Templeton, Wallace sets most of her book in the present, but some of it in the past. Chapters are dedicated to the history of Sorrow’s family, from the point of view of her female ancestors who founded and then held the orchard against the neighboring family’s onslaught). These chapters give the reader insight into the history of Sorrow’s family—and equally importantly, the orchard itself—even as Sorrow begins to (re)learn her own.
In the end, both Sorrow and the reader learn what happened eight years ago, and without spoiling too much, the true lens of the mystery, of Sorrow’s missing memory, of the struggles of her family, both past and present, is grief. Over the course of the book, as she learns pieces of her memory that she has lost and then found, Sorrow’s heart shatters again and again.
The Memory Trees is, in turn, going to shatter your heart. It’s a harrowing portrait of grief, loss, and the very best of what a hauntings book can be—even sans ghosts.
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and eight years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.