Book Review: White Pines by Gemma Amor

 “With great skill, Gemma Amor has delivered a wonderful story, as full of tremendous emotion as it is terrifying action.”

 

White Pines by Gemma Amor - coverA relatively new voice in the horror genre in the past couple of years, Gemma Amor has quickly made a name for herself as a hard-working author. After releasing her first collection, Cruel Works of Nature, in late 2018, she released two further books in 2019: a second collection Till the Score is Paid, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel Dear Laura, her critically-acclaimed debut. While she has published some short stories with small presses and podcasts, these three books were all produced entirely by Amor, hence the “hard-working” title. And, given the excellent job she did with the first three, there was no reason to change her publishing stance with her new novel.

Told from the point of view of author Megan (“Megs” to her friends), White Pines covers a great amount of story and many miles. We are introduced to Megs, living city life in England with her husband, Tim, when she receives an official letter. Her estranged Grandmother has passed away and left her cottage on the Scottish coast to Megs. It is a timely piece of news as Tim arrives home from work and drops the bombshell that he no longer loves his wife. Running the full gamut of emotions, Megs finally flees their family home and, wishing to put many miles between them, she drives through the night until she reaches her Granny’s cottage, Taigh Faire, the “watch house”. She hasn’t been here since her childhood, memories only coming fleetingly at first.

Megs isn’t a meek woman trying to escape an abusive relationship or a harrowing incident. She is much more complex than that. Sure, it is Tim who is the catalyst for her leaving, but it is clear through her inner dialogue that their marriage has been on rocky ground for some time, and she is not entirely blameless in this, thanks to a too-close friendship with colleague Matthew, and a one night stand. Being alone on the road and when she first arrives in the small Scottish village, Megs has plenty of time to ponder on all of this, and she does a fair amount of beating herself up. As she gets closer to the cottage, her thoughts wander to her family, the details she had forgotten from her youth, details that are slowly coming back to her. Her enigmatic grandmother who, just like Megs, had lost the small finger on her right hand, although, as Megs was told, this was simply a strange coincidence. The boiled sweets her grandmother favoured, but Megs had a passionate hatred for. And so on. Spending so much time in the head of a character, Amor had to take great care to make her relatable and compelling. Megs is not perfectly good; she is a perfectly developed human being, with flaws and idiosyncrasies like anyone in real life.

It is clear that Amor took a great deal of time developing her protagonist. She also took a great deal of care to develop her main setting; Taigh Faire, and the island it overlooks. The attention to detail, both with the local community and the old-fashioned interior of the cottage, is commendable. The way Amor describes everything, from the rough sandstone of the cottage to the foliage of the surrounding environment, is brilliant. And she intersperses it with dialogue and action to deliver a well-balanced and entertaining story. It is densely packed with descriptions and action, but this only encourages the reader to join Megs on her adventure of self-discovery, drawing us in until we cannot get out until the horrific truths have been uncovered.

As Megs begins to unravel the mystery of Taigh Faire and the island, and what it all has to do with her family, we are taken through many gripping emotions and themes. While the story begins with the drama of her crumbling marriage, it further develops into a supernatural mystery, a folk horror story with its rural setting and hints of rituals and a cult, and finally to cosmic horror, thanks to the incredible finale. If not done well, this may seem like a juxtaposition of ideas, like too many incompatible things forced together. But the thread that runs throughout all of these themes is the endearing and enchanting Megs, and the expert composition by Amor. Hers is an incredible journey that spans many miles and, in the end, many years. As the pace quickens with every revelation, the horror becomes evermore visceral. From the actions of the sinister mainlanders, to the description of the otherworldly apparitions witnessed in the island community of White Pines, and the horrors haunting Megs’ dreams. Such is the power of Amor’s descriptions and action that it is quite reminiscent of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual.

A common pitfall of speculative fiction authors is the tendency to rely upon simply telling the reader what is happening, rather than showing us through good descriptive language, action and dialogue. While this is made more straightforward with a first-person narrative, it is by no means easy. We are seeing this strange story unfold in a strange place, as is Megs. But it is through her interaction with the places and people around her that we learn about the mystery of the island. Amor’s use of incredibly evocative descriptions paint a picture in the mind of the reader, often verging on the poetic, especially during the vivid dream on the beach. These images are further reinforced by the realistic dialogue, whether with the strange locals, love interest Matthew, or within herself, when the reader’s sympathy for our protagonist is only strengthened. With great skill, Gemma Amor has delivered a wonderful story, as full of tremendous emotion as it is terrifying action. Hers may be a relatively new voice in the genre, but it is one to which we must surely be listening.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Independently Published
eBook: 442 pp
Release Date: 24 March 2020

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